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March 12, 2004
And, finally, there is only the cricket. After a pre-tour build-up that almost counted as an entire tour in itself, weeks of diplomacy, goodwill, speculation, rumours and the inevitable war of words will be given a brief respite as some actual cricket is played at last.
The Pakistan camp, no matter how much Inzamam-ul-Haq played down Pakistan A's stunning victory over the Indians, will take heart not necessarily from the result, but from the manner of it. Defeats in inconsequential warm-up games rarely act as portents of things to come, but the ferocity of Taufeeq Umar and Imran Nazir's assault on the Indian opening bowlers will ensure that some psychological ground will have been gained - not much, maybe, but definitely some. Javed Miandad, the coach, no stranger to taking advantage of the slightest of mental openings, will certainly not play down its significance.
There will, in all likelihood, be some impact on the Pakistan line-up at Karachi. Shahid Afridi - who was not likely to play as an opener according to Wasim Bari some weeks ago - might well find himself in the front line against Zaheer Khan and co. tomorrow. In view of Inzamam's claim that his side will hope to repeat the attacking policy adopted by the A team, this seems even more likely.
The key to Pakistan's performance will, as so often in recent years, lie in the bowling. Shoaib Akhtar, as well as being in destructive form in recent months, has been unusually quiet: the word is that his preparation for the series has been unusually intense and focused. The extent of his recovery from his World Cup mauling from Sachin Tendulkar will provide another intriguing aside in the mind-games stakes, although it probably won't be as pivotal as has been trumpeted.
That this series won't just be the Shoaib-Tendulkar show is mainly down to the maturity of the supporting cast. India's batting line-up, even without Tendulkar, is as strong as any in world cricket, and Pakistan's bowling attack, while not as varied as it has been in recent years, is still destructive. The exploits of Shoaib and Mohammad Sami are becoming legendary, but the performance of Shabbir Ahmed, if he plays, will be crucial. While the extra pace of Sami and Shoaib can reap spectacular rewards or sow the seeds of disaster, Shabbir brings a steady, consistent, repetitive approach to his bowling - something that is vital in the one day game. Shabbir has been suffering from a mysterious finger injury, and although Miandad would only say that a decision on his inclusion would be taken on the morning of the match, Bari rated his chances of playing at about 70%.
But, so often, it is the little things that make the difference in cricket: a no-ball here, a wide there, a stolen single here and a saved four there. India's progress in the one-day game has been helped considerably by the improvement in their fielding, boosted by the presence in particular of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif. But Pakistan, despite an indifferent showing in New Zealand, have improved their fielding beyond measure over the last year as well. Younger players, in the shape of Shoaib Malik, Imran Farhat and Sami, have injected a vitality that will be further enhanced by the expected return of Afridi. Both Inzamam - himself a much-improved outfielder - and Miandad were keen to ensure that the down-under dip was a temporary one. They worked hard at the training camp on fielding skills, and other basics such as running between the wickets. Both were happy with the amount of work the squad put in.
It is hard to argue against the popular notion that the series boils down to Pakistan's bowling against the Indian batting. Both teams are young with old hands at the helm, while few players on either side have regular experience of playing against each other. Which side handles the pressure of playing the oldest of enemies better might well turn out to be the decisive factor in this long-awaited series.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Imran Farhat, 2 Shahid Afridi, 3 Yasir Hameed, 4 Yousuf Youhana, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Abdul Razzaq, 7 Moin Khan (wk), 8 Shabbir Ahmed, 9 Saqlain Mushtaq, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Mohammad Sami.
India (probable): 1 Sachin Tendulkar, 2 Virender Sehwag, 3 Sourav Ganguly (capt), 4 Rahul Dravid (wk), 5 VVS Laxman, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Mohammad Kaif, 8 Murali Kartik, 9 Irfan Pathan, 10 Zaheer Khan, 11 Ashish Nehra.
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