A lot to live up to
Pakistan's tour to India this year has a lot to live up to, and it isn't just cricket that is in the spotlight. Last year more than 8000 Indians crossed the border, and were greeted rapturously. The entire tour was played in a warm haze of affection, and one of the popular photographs the press kept showing was of a fan with one half of his face painted with a Pakistani flag, and the other half Indian. So where was he really from? Nationality didn't matter.
The Chandigarh administration, preparing for the Test at adjoining Mohali, has reportedly asked the residents of the city to accommodate as many guests from Pakistan as they can in their homes. Over 10,000 visas are expected to be disbursed, and the city's hotels are full. Cityfolk have responded with enthusiasm. The worry about whether the Indian people will reciprocate the welcome of last year seems misplaced.
And then there is the cricket. Both teams haven't had the easiest of journeys since their last encounter, but are well placed to come back strongly in this series. India-Pakistan encounters are showcase events, the highlight of the careers of players who do well in these. There will be no lack of intensity.
India, resplendent in the glow of that series win against Pakistan, stumbled through the first half of the next season as if they had been placed in a time machine and the years had rolled back. The passion that Sourav Ganguly had inspired, the discipline that John Wright had inculcated, both seemed missing in action, though the men themselves were there, one frustrated, the other forlorn.
India lost to Australia without putting up the fight you'd expect after their drawn away series a few months earlier. They then beat South Africa at home, and rolled over Bangladesh. But all wasn't well, and murmurs grew that the series against Pakistan would be Wright's last as a coach. At the same time, there were whispers about Ganguly's place in the Test side, though he was, by virtue of being captain, secure for the moment. Rahul Dravid led India A to a win in the Challenger Trophy, and his captaincy was calm and assured. There's a lot at stake in this series, and when Ganguly says "The worst is over," as he did in a recent interview to Wisden Asia Cricket, he is reassuring himself as much as us.
Like Pakistan, India have suffered from frequent injuries to their fast bowlers. Lakshmipathy Balaji got injured soon after his inspired performance against Pakistan last year, and hasn't been the same since. Ashish Nehra stumbles in and out of fitness, like a child discovering the joys of the revolving door of a hotel entrance. Zaheer Khan came back to fitness against Australia, but continues to be marked "Fragile: Handle With Care". (And "This Side Up"? Nah.) Irfan Pathan, the most promising of India's new-ball bowlers, has also had his niggles, and will be the man India most need fit.
And then, there's the batting line-up. Sachin Tendulkar's elbow is now reportedly well enough for him to play, and if it does threaten to affect his career, as has been reported in some sources, he will approach this series with a special urgency. When great players play for posterity, the plebians should watch out. Or simply watch.
There is a healthy competition for middle-order places, although Mohammad Kaif, after his battling performances against Australia, should have been picked ahead of Yuvraj Singh in the squad. They are both talented players - though never again should Yuvraj be made to open in a Test - and should fitness or form desert an incumbent, are capable of cementing a place for themselves in the side.
India's spinners could well be the difference between the sides. Anil Kumble was India's biggest matchwinner through the 90s - albiet at home - while Harbhajan Singh promised to be a star of equal magnitude when he won India the 2001 series against Australia. The two haven't bowled together much at home, and haven't been the lethal pair that one would expect of them. But they are fresh and match-fit, and eager to make sure that India doesn't play with three fast bowlers for a while yet. But what if there is grass on the Mohali pitch?
One of the key elements in building a strong team is solidarity, selflessness. Australia know this, and South Africa embodied it as well, in the years when Hansie Cronje was captain and Bob Woolmer was coach. Their team began to disintegrate after Cronjegate, and Woolmer has been with Pakistan for a year now, trying to make a team out of a collection of individuals. In that context, it might actually be to Pakistan's advantage that Shoaib Akhtar will not be in the dressing room. Akhtar is a potent fast bowler, no doubt, but his braggadocio and arrogance is bad for team spirit.
Following Pakistan cricket is a bittersweet experience: time and again, talented young men with great gifts walk out into the sunshine; and each time, they disappear after a few moments of lustre. Pakistan cricket is a macho entity, it does not nurture. Make that the past tense; Woolmer is here.
Pakistan's young talents, the likes of Yasir Hameed, Salman Butt and Asim Kamal, have clearly been given space to grow under Woolmer, and the team suddenly does not seem as mercurial as before. They did lose their recent Test series against Australia heavily, but which side, leave alone one as young as this one, doesn't lose to those fellas? Their talent is unquestionable, and they have just the right man as coach to nurture that talent.
Pakistan's fast-bowling line-up, normally their strength, is a little bare this time. Shoaib is absent, and Umar Gul and Shabbir Ahmed are missing. Mohammad Sami has disappointed of late, but has the ability to turn a game around in a session, while Rana Naved-ul-Hasan bowled well in the limited opportunities he got in Australia. Pakistan's main bowler, though, will be Danish Kaneria, who was their top wicket-taker against Australia, and should be even more potent on Indian pitches.
The Pakistan middle order, consisting of Younis Khan, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Yousuf Youhana, is as solid as the openers (Hameed, Butt and Taufeeq Umar) are promising. Inzamam's calm and dignified demeanour makes him the right man to lead Pakistan at such a crucial phase in their cricket, and when he has enough of it, Pakistan will have a ready replacement, for they are grooming a successor. Pakistan's eye, already, is on the future. That augurs well for the present.