March 21, 2000

If it is Sharjah, the favourites must be Pakistan

Sharjah, the venue for the triangular series featuring India, Pakistan and South Africa, has come a long way since the first international match was played there. The organisers have worked really hard over the years to improve the conditions in the ground and also to market the game. The CBFS started the novel concept of rewarding former cricketers for the services rendered by them. No effort has been spared to ensure that the cricketers are comfortable, the airconditioning of the dressing rooms being an example. The matches during this time of the year more or coincide with the shopping festival in Dubai.

Though it is festival time, cricket will always be played hard, especially when you have arch-rivals India and Pakistan along with the tough and proud South Africans. The teams from the sub-continent are under tremendous pressure as they carry the hopes of thousands of expatriates on their shoulders. A team losing in Sharjah is not pardoned that easily, as the fans of the losing side have to contend with the ribbing from their colleagues at work, until the records are reset.

Pakistan should go down as the favourites as they have better balance than India and South Africa. The Pakistanis are without Saeed Anwar, Saqlain Mushtaq and Azhar Mehmood. Still there is enough talent and experience in the Pakistani side to make them very competitive. Inzamam, Youhana and Wasti would be the key batsmen with Razzak and Moin Khan to provide ample support. With Akram confirming his participation, Moin Khan has the advantage of drawing from his vast experience. Waqar Younis is still to be taken seriously these days, as he is on a mission to prove all his detractors wrong. The combination of Sharjah and India somehow gets the best out of the Pakistanis and it will not be any different this time.

The South Africans have fond memories of Sharjah as they had a good outing the last time they played there. Like India, their bowling attack wears a thin look with even Pollock struggling on placid pitches. The return of Ntini will provide some extra teeth but the inexperience of the other bowlers will not help matters. Added to that is the poor form of the middle order batsmen, but their all rounders have more often than not pulled them out of trouble. Nevertheless, their fierce pride will make them ignore the shortcomings and keep them focussed. Another way of looking at it is that they are not under any pressure unlike either the Indians or the Pakistanis. This is the advantage the Springboks can utilise to the fullest extent possible.

The Indians have a lot to worry when it comes to bowling, with the spearhead Srinath looking very rusty. Agarkar has the ability to pick up wickets though he may concede runs in the bargain. Tendulkar will be required to bowl and of late he has been the most economical of the lot. Kumble and Joshi have a major role to play as the medium pace attack is short of confidence at the moment. The batting is in good form with Dravid also returning to reasonable form if the last match was any indication.

It will be a tussle between the methodical South Africans, gritty Pakistanis and the mercurial Indians. When you have three teams such as these, it is difficult to pick the winner, but to me the Pakistanis definitely have an edge, considering the venue is Sharjah.