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October 29, 2004
One of Australia's many enviable attributes is the strength in depth they have developed in their squad. They have just won a series in India - where they hadn't won for 35 years - without their captain and leading batsman. Brett Lee can't find a place in the starting XI, and if Darren Lehmann, one of the best players of spin bowling, steps aside once Ricky Ponting returns, the audaciously nimble-footed Michael Clarke awaits. Meanwhile for Pakistan and Sri Lanka, two of the teams vying to jump onto Australia's lengthy coat-tails, this Test should provide them both with a clearer idea of the talent on their respective benches.
The Sri Lankan camp has recently shown, admirably, an ability to adapt to a post-Murali world. Their series in Australia might have been lost, but progress was made - and in Lasith Malinga, the speedster with the freakish, slingy action, a unique, albeit raw, diamond was unearthed. Sri Lanka took further heart from their victories over South Africa at home, and particularly against Pakistan at Faisalabad, where the left-arm wiles of Ranjan Herath and the pace and swing of Dilhara Fernando proved the strength their attack can muster. But there is considerable progress still to be made, especially over five days. Today, in the windy dustbowl of Karachi, they got a taste of just how difficult the process of adjustment will be after Murali finally mooches off into the sunset.
The pitch, despite some early-morning movement, wasn't exactly as seam-friendly as Sri Lanka's batsmen made it look yesterday, but the cause wasn't helped by some indifferent performances from key bowlers. If Fernando was hot for a session at Faisalabad, he was very cold for all of today, and this contrast has marked much of his career. When he arrived on the scene in 1999, he was a refreshing break from past Sri Lankan pacemen: he was tall, rustically well-built and quicker than most, hovering menacingly on the speedometer in the mid 80s and low 90s. He developed a superb slower ball - with a unique spread-finger grip - and the priceless ability to reverse-swing the ball. But injuries to his back, and continuing problems with his run-up, have resulted not only in a drastic loss of pace - he nestled in the early 80s today - but also effectiveness. At Karachi, where he should have been trying to build on his Faisalabad burst, Fernando sent down 13 harmless overs, struggling both with his line and length.
With Chaminda Vaas having an off day and Herath unable to extract significant spin, Sri Lanka's attack had a bare look about it, and only Farveez Maharoof occasionally threatened. The reliance on Murali has been so great in the past - he has taken 257 wickets in 32 Sri Lankan wins, and 35 of their 37 Test wins have come since his debut - that it is only natural that they will experience difficulties without him. In all probability, there will be a few more days like this before the likes of Maharoof, Fernando and Malinga can start winning Test matches.
Their ineffectiveness shouldn't take too much away from a determined Pakistan batting line-up. If Abdul Razzaq has rekindled hopes that he is more than just a stock bowler behind Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami, then Younis Khan will also be hoping to look on this match as a rebirth. Like Razzaq, Younis's career has had question-marks attached. Today's century was his sixth in Tests, his third against Sri Lanka and only his second at home, but it was only his second score above 50 in his last seven matches. His innings showcased the strokes that had him rated so highly early in his career. There was the expansive flourish of his one-kneed cover-drives, the punch of his shots square of the wicket, and the ungainly but highly effective sweep. In addition, there was one magnificent pull off Fernando, to reach his fifty, which added a calypso flourish to what had been, with Imran Farhat at the other end, a distinctly Caribbean display of batting in the morning.
There were signs, too, in his 124 of the intelligence - particularly in his change of pace as Inzamam settled down - that once prompted Rashid Latif to identify him as a potential leader. Younis's two fighting fifties against Australia in Colombo in 2002 - more valuable than some of his centuries on flat tracks against the weakened attacks of West Indies and Bangladesh - seemed to back up that idea. But after a disastrous slump in form since, amid increasing doubts about his ability to perform at the crunch, he had lost his way. This was his first Test in over a year, and his 15th at the problematic one-down position. His record at No. 3 was ordinary, although he said after this innings that it was the position in which he feels most comfortable.
Younis may or may not be the long-term solution to the problem, but at least there are now some options. Yasir Hameed was touted as the one to watch last year, and he and Asim Kamal - brusquely dropped after his failures last week - both deserve a look-in. Shoaib Malik might be worth a try there too. And if Taufeeq Umar returns to open, then the competition is likely to heat up even more. But today, at least, Younis Khan grabbed his chance to be Pakistan's second unlikely hero in two days. And as an indicator of the depth of your squad, that can't be a bad thing.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.
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