Pakistan v India, 3rd Test, Rawalpindi, Preview April 12, 2004

Winner takes all

Sourav Ganguly: will he open the batting at Rawalpindi? © AFP

There is so much happening so fast at the Pindi Cricket Stadium that it is increasingly difficult to sort out fact from fiction. Sourav Ganguly, back at the helm of the Indian team, said that he might open the batting with Virender Sehwag. The pitch has had so little mowing that from a distance it's difficult to make out the batting strip from the rest of the field. The Pakistan camp is riddled with injuries to their key bowlers while the sole unaffected bowler, Shoaib Akhtar, is beginning to find the rhythm that has made him a huge force in international cricket. The final Test is going to be a showdown, a streetfight, a battle to the end.

To fight this battle the Indian think-tank has, in its infinite wisdom, chosen an unusual XI. As expected, they have split the successful opening partnership of Aakash Chopra and Sehwag. Yuvraj Singh, who was picked in the squad as a reserve opener, may take his place. Worse still, Ganguly said, "It is a hard decision. When we chose Yuvraj in the squad ahead of Sadagoppan Ramesh, he [Yuvraj] had agreed to open the innings. But he has played really well in the middle order so either he or I will open the innings. In the long run Yuvraj has to look at himself as an opening batsman." Ganguly conceded, "I am not a Test opener, but if I do open it will be a one-off thing in the interest of the team."

India continue to believe in a bat-first policy and it is an adventurous step to replace the steady Chopra with the impetuous Yuvraj at the top of the order. If it succeeds, the Yuvraj-Sehwag partnership will be a delight for a public lusting after fours and sixes, but that is an irrelevant point. The team has to think first about the business of winning Test matches, not entertaining crowds. "Chopra is unlucky to miss out, but you can't drop batsmen who have made Test hundreds," said Ganguly. Yuvraj made a conscious decision to open the batting for Punjab in the last Ranji season and the results were encouraging. He made 138 against Delhi, 80 against Railways, and 38 in a low-scoring game against Andhra Pradesh. But he did not have to face Shoaib steaming in and letting the ball rip at close to 100mph in domestic cricket.

Shoaib Akhtar and John Wright discuss strategy on the eve of the decider © AFP

In a departure from tradition the Indian captain announced the final XI in his pre-match press conference. Chopra, Ajit Agarkar, Ramesh Powar, Murali Kartik and Mohammad Kaif are the five who miss out. Ashish Nehra, who many reckon should have played in the second Test itself, comes into the team in place of Agarkar, who bowed ineffectively in that match. Anil Kumble holds his spot as the sole spinner in the team and that is only understandable given the nature of the pitch.

Though there is plenty of live grass on the track, both Ganguly and John Wright feel that it will turn brown before the first day is out. It has been ferociously hot during the day, with temperatures inching towards 40 degrees Celsius. This will take a toll on the pitch, making it progressively batsman-friendly. Local experts reckon that the bounce will be even for the best part of the game, unlike at Lahore where the ball began to keep low from the second day itself.

There's more pressure on Shoaib in the final Test, with Umar Gul out of the game with a bad back. However, there's no shortage of firepower in the squad. Pakistan will have to choose from Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Fazl-e-Akbar and Rao Iftikhar Anjum. Naved is likely to get the nod. The confirmation that Mohammad Sami is fit to play is a confidence-booster to the Pakistan team. India, on the other hand, have had a tricky decision to make, and know at the back of their minds that they might have got it wrong.

Pakistan (likely) 1 Imran Farhat, 2 Taufeeq Umar, 3 Yasir Hameed, 4 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 5 Yousuf Youhana, 6 Asim Kamal, 7 Kamran Akmal (wk), 8 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, 9 Mohammad Sami, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Danish Kaneria.

India 1 Yuvraj Singh, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Rahul Dravid, 4 Sachin Tendulkar, 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Sourav Ganguly (capt), 7 Parthiv Patel (wk), 8 Irfan Pathan, 9 Lakshmipathy Balaji, 10 Anil Kumble, 11 Ashish Nehra.