Pakistan's spirit willing, despite Aamer blow
For a team that has just lost an opening Test to Australia by a not too inconsiderable margin, Sydney finds Pakistan in surprisingly robust spirits. Having seen plenty of grass on the SCG track yesterday, the captain Mohammad Yousuf was good-humoured enough to quip that the Australians must be a little scared. It was funnier in Punjabi.
Partly it appears to stem from the captain himself. Yousuf, like Hanif Mohammad many years ago, would probably stand unmoved in cyclones. There may be other flaws in him as captain, even in this one attribute, but it is never a bad thing in Pakistan cricket to have a calming leader around. Certainly there are less complaints coming out of the side.
And his 8-1 fields as Shane Watson approached his maiden hundred in Melbourne were - more than just pragmatism - a surprisingly astute tactical nod to the nervousness in the Australian air about centuries. It should've been rewarded.
But partly it also seems to have become the accepted norm around the world and within the squad that Pakistan take time to wake up. It's the way they won the World Twenty20 after all. And in five Test series over the last five years - thrice abroad - they've won the second Test immediately after losing the first. Most recently they did so across the Tasman.
"We can do well in the first Tests as well," Yousuf said. "In New Zealand, we played a good first Test but we lost by 30-odd runs. It doesn't matter so much whether you win or lose, it matters only how you play. In the second Test we played well and we won. Even here in Melbourne, we lost but we had good sessions. Pakistan teams struggle in Australia but we will try hard here."
It is nothing to be particularly proud of, but something in which solace can be often be sought. It shouldn't have happened here; off the back of a tough three-Test series in New Zealand, they came and played a two-game day in Hobart before the Boxing Day Test. They should've been up and running.
More tangible hope should lie in Pakistan's probable selection. Talk of two spinners is persistent but probably also misplaced. History doesn't agree with such strategies for Pakistan; memory only recalls Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed having worked well in tandem and that was just the once and on the kind of surface they just don't make anymore, except occasionally in India.
More recently, in 2007-08 Pakistan picked Abdur Rehman and Danish Kaneria against South Africa at home and that seemed unnatural. Sydney is also not the raging turner it once was; spin will be rewarded but one should suffice especially if the some of the grass of yesterday and today finds its way to tomorrow. Kaneria has protection on his finger still, but the captain seems confident.
The natural, Pakistani way is to complement three fast bowlers with one spinner. Their attack has been depleted by the news that Mohammad Aamer, who took five wickets in Australia's second innings at the MCG, will not play due to a groin injury but it remains a decent one on this surface. The Abdur Rauf selection in the first Test was a mistake and it was paid for. Mohammad Sami and Umar Gul will come in for Rauf and Aamer, and their remains the acknowledgment that Australia could be troubled.
"Danish is fit and he will be in, he bowled a lot yesterday and says he is fine," said Yousuf. "Looking at the wicket, there is a bit of grass so three fast bowlers are likely. We have to decide which three because Aamer is a little stiff. Nothing serious, but he is stiff because he has bowled a lot."
Pakistan won't mind much the mugginess and humidity of Sydney, which are not a world away from Karachi. Sydney was the venue of Pakistan's last Test win over Australia, in 1995-96, a fair cricketing generation ago. The skies burst open today but only showers are expected during the Test. It has been suggested that Sydney will suit Pakistan but Yousuf made the valid point that Melbourne wasn't far from home either. "In the last Test, the wicket, the weather were more or less what we get in Pakistan, maybe a little more bounce
"But we're feeling good. There is no disappointment at all. I told the team, OK we lost but it doesn't matter. Don't let it get you down, learn from the mistakes you made. There is still a lot of cricket to look forward to."
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo