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March 27, 2004
If the recently concluded one-day series is to be taken as a marker, then the real excitement may be about to begin tomorrow. India and Pakistan clash for their first Test series in four years, and the first on Pakistani soil for fourteen.
Despite India's win in a closely-fought one-day series, both sides take some positives into the Test arena. India's buoyancy and momentum will be dampened somewhat by the absence of Sourav Ganguly, but Rahul Dravid, who will captain in his place, said at the press conference that taking over as captain at the last minute will not be an issue. "There is no extra pressure as I have played as vice-captain for a while. I have to be prepared for these things, and as vice-captain, have to think about strategy and tactics in any case."
Talk of momentum and psychological advantages was also played down. "I'm not a big believer in momentum because these things can shift in an hour or session of a match. But yes, we are in a better frame of mind, which will undoubtedly help."
The attacking platform that Test matches provide means that the Pakistan camp will also step into the Qasim Bagh stadium in a positive mood. The character and composition of their bowling attack, while occasionally a liability in the shortened version, is ideally suited to the challenges that Test cricket provides. Disciplinary concerns about their bowling, manifest in over 100 wides and no-balls in the five one-dayers, will be less intense. Inzamam-ul-Haq, their captain, argued that the less stringent rules on wides, in particular, will help his bowlers. "I am confident that we have three or four world-class bowlers in the side, capable of bowling out any side in the world twice."
In addition, despite the problems in the one-day series with the opening combination, Pakistan's batting is in a rare healthy state. Yasir Hameed's form, as well as that of Inzamam, will be cause for optimism, albeit cautious, in the home camp. "There wasn't that much difference in the batting between the two sides in the series so we are confident on that front."
The final line-ups for both teams will be finalised on the morning of the match, although both have a fair idea of what they will look like. Yuvraj Singh, stepping into a rich vein of form, is almost certain to play as a straight swap for Ganguly, and Akash Chopra, after his gritty performances in Australia, will open the batting with Virender Sehwag. Dravid was confident that Yuvraj "can do what we all know he is capable of doing".
The bowling will provide a more taxing dilemma. The emergence of Irfan Pathan and the arrival of Anil Kumble means that their positions are sealed. Kumble, on the back of his revitalized bowling in Australia, and given the Pakistani's traditional weaknesses against legspin, will play a crucial part. The two remaining places will revolve around a combination of Ajit Agarkar, the impressive Laxmipathy Balaji, and Zaheer Khan, who struggled to find his rhythm in the one-day series.
Pakistan's changes will be along similar lines. The responsibility of opening is likely to return into the hands of Imran Farhat and Taufeeq Umar, while the doughty left-hander from Karachi, Asim Kamal, so composed while making 99 on his debut against South Africa, may strengthen the middle order in place of the dropped Younis Khan.
The bowling line-up is more settled. The three S's, Shoaib, Sami and Shabbir, barring injury, are certain starters, leaving the coach and captain to choose between Saqlain Mushtaq's experience and track record against India, and Danish Kaneria's recent form and vitality. While Inzamam refused to say who would play, given his preferences in the last few matches, it is likely that Kaneria's legspin may win the vote.
The pitch, as against Bangladesh in October, will offer something to both batsmen and bowlers, while the searing heat - "the hottest venue we have been to in Pakistan," according to Dravid - might be a factor. Both captains acknowledged the importance of starting well and seizing any early advantage. Pakistan, notoriously slow starters, failed to do so in any of the one-dayers, and ultimately paid the price. India, after their successes based around the platform Chopra and Sehwag provided so regularly in Australia, will be far more assured about their ability to win the early skirmishes.
History teaches us not to hope for a result, as 15 out of the 20 Tests in Pakistan have been drawn, including the last eight. One has to go back to Hyderabad, in the midst of Imran Khan's blitz, to find a result between the two sides here. India has yet to win a test here.
Current form, however, is always a better indicator of the way events might unfold than history is. Pakistan, under the increasingly assured and authoritative captaincy of Inzamam, are coming off two impressive series wins against South Africa, at home, and New Zealand, abroad. India came closer to toppling Australia, in their backyard, than any team has in recent memory. Although the stakes in any India-Pakistan series are in any case high enough for vertigo to set in, the knowledge that the winner here can claim, justifiably, possession of a position second only to Australia in world cricket, will provide yet more incentive. Analogies of a military nature may be in bad taste given the history, but while the one-day battle has been won, the Test war is now up for grabs.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
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