India in Pakistan 2003-04 February 25, 2004

Probables gear up for epic battles

Shahid Afridi: his bowling will provide extra value
© Neil Lane

With the logistical preliminaries finally out of the way, the sense of relief in Pakistan is palpable. Cricket-speak makes its much-awaited debut in the build-up to the Pakistan-India series, swiftly replacing matters diplomatic and political.

And as it turns out, there is much on the minds of the Pakistani think-tank. The scheduling of the one-dayers before the Tests has forced the hand of Wasim Bari, the chief selector, compelling him to call up Imran Nazir, Shahid Afridi and Salim Elahi into the training camp. The recall of the first two has been on the cards: Bari had specifically watched Afridi play recently in Karachi, and Nazir, whose recent form made Afridi look pedestrian, had already been in his plans.

"They have been called up keeping the one-dayers in mind. Their fielding and Afridi's bowling also provide extra value," said Bari, speaking to Wisden Cricinfo. With the nature of the changes, there was a concern that the squad may have been too opener-heavy, but Bari and his fellow selectors do not consider Afridi to be an opener. "We want him to come in lower down the order and bowl a few overs as well. We have, for once, a good situation with our openers. Taufeeq Umar and Imran Farhat in the Tests, and Farhat and Yasir Hameed in the one-dayers, have proved successful and we don't want to destabilise that."

The trio who made way can consider themselves unlucky, especially Asim Kamal, who made 99 on his Test debut against South Africa and has been in good form at domestic level as well. He has been earmarked for the longer version of the game, and will be in line for a recall once the pyjamas and white balls are tucked away. Bazid Khan and Faisal Iqbal, son and nephew respectively of illustrious former batsmen (Majid Khan and Javed Miandad), have suffered a drastic simultaneous dip in domestic form recently, and the future, despite Bari's insistence that the door is stil open for all players, is uncertain for them.

Partly this will be because of coach Miandad's belief in continuity. "An idea of a team for both forms is already there," he said. "We don't want to disrupt things too much, because we had a successful tour of New Zealand, where the team, despite the team's loss in the one-dayers, played fairly well."

Inzamam-ul-Haq, the captain, will also be reluctant to tinker, partly because, along with Miandad, he has enhanced the sense of unity and purpose built up within the team by Rashid Latif. Miandad, unsurprisingly, is upbeat. "The team spirit amongst the boys is excellent. Confidence is high as well and maybe that isn't the case with the Indian team after what happened in the VB Series finals."

But there remains work to be done at the camp. Bari and Miandad have identified several areas that need to be improved. Fielding, perennially a concern, has improved visibly with the presence of younger players such as Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Sami. But it still remains a long way off, collectively, from what it should be. Miandad, one of the better Pakistani fielders to step on a cricket field, has highlighted practising run-outs as a key drill. Other basic skills, including running between the wickets - conspicuous in Pakistani teams only through its apathy - will also be practised diligently.

The situation with no-balls is little better, and attitudes of Pakistani bowlers to it, if not apathetic, have dangled between indifference and a dangerous ignorance. In part, the problem lies in their attacking nature. When Imran told Wasim Akram not to worry about wides and no-balls during the 1992 World Cup and instead concentrate on taking wickets, he didn't just lay down a path to ultimate triumph, he put forth an ideology for most Pakistani bowlers since. If Akram suffered from any cricket affliction, it was his inclination to overstep the line, and that trait has been passed on to bowlers as different as Sami, Saqlain Mushtaq and Abdul Razzaq.

Ironically, Imran's discipline ensured he never suffered from the problem himself, and his presence in the camp will help. His pupil, Akram, will also be there to talk to the team about bowling, particularly at the death, which is another area the coach and captain are keen to work on.

With the left-armers Zahid Saeed and Mohammad Khalil also at the camp to provide the batting with a simulation of what they can expect from India's pace attack, the preparation camp promises to be unusually intense and thorough. Miandad has already thrown down the gauntlet: "Any player not giving 200%," he has said, "will not be considered." Given that he knows a thing or two about the pressures of playing India, the players will do well to take heed.