England aspiring to end a long victory drought
On its arrival at Karachi, the England Cricket Team was given a hearty welcome. Touring Pakistan after a lapse of 13 years the visitors looked pretty enthusiastic about the tour, with those visiting the sub-continent for the first time seemingly excited about Pakistan's culture that vastly differs from Europe. Not boasting of striking like a thunderstorm and winning the series, their approach and behavior has been modest.
Skipper Nasser Hussain appeared well aware of the comparative strength of the two teams as well as Pakistan team's unique capability of springing a surprise and the advantage of home environment that Pakistan enjoys.
For the next 8 weeks or so, the interest of cricket lovers both in Pakistan and England will remain focussed on the series, expected to be awfully thrilling. Although the two teams have come from Kenya after losing the ICC Challenge Trophy, both have their individual merits and a challenging position in the world of cricket. Ups and downs are a part of the game. Skipper Nasser Hussain maintains that "our team would start as underdogs and if we think we can beat Pakistan 3-0 we are surely mistaken. Still our players would not be push-overs". This is a gentle, polite and a very humble pronouncement from a captain who realizes that cricket being the game of glorious uncertainties, unnecessary boasts could be a source of embarrassment in case the things do not go well. The England team cannot, however, be underestimated. They had a very successful summer by defeating the mighty West Indies 3-1 at home thus achieving the first series win in 31 years. They also defeated Zimbabwe during the same season. They have some outstanding players in their ranks and a vastly improved seam attack with Darren Gough and Craig White having leant the art of reverse swing. Former Pakistan skipper Wasim Akram who thinks that it would not be easy for England to adopt to our conditions is also of the view that it is never an easy series playing against England. Although England has not defeated Pakistan for the last 18 years, they certainly aspire to do so by fighting relentlessly to break the long drought.
As for Pakistan, it has an excellent record against England. Besides the victories on home soil in 1983-84 and 1987-88, Pakistan also won the series in England in 1987, 1992 and 1996. But lot of water has flown in the rivers and lot of wind swept the cricket fields since then. Except for the few old stalwarts, Pakistan's cricket machine is equipped with the new components. Some of them are outstanding while some are just crawling on the rough and tough trail of a challenging career. Pakistan suffers from the blemish of losing 3 home series on the trot against Australia and Zimbabwe two years ago and against Sri Lanka earlier this year. The team, however, compensated for the losses by winning some important matches abroad including the Asia Cup. Skipper Moin Khan feels, "There will be more pressure on us because we will be playing at home and start as favorites".
Not undermining the strength of the tourists in any way, the Pakistan team is an excellent blend of youth and experience. Although Pakistan possesses a devastating battery of pace bowlers, the planners appear to have chalked out the strategy of fighting the battle on spin wickets. It is so because the England batsmen are thought to be vulnerable to quality spin. A glance at the record books shows how the spin bowlers dominated the series in the past. In 1987-88 the leg spinner Abdul Qadir called the 'magician' took 30 wickets in the 3 tests, one more than England's seven main bowlers put together. Similarly Mushtaq Ahmed only 17 at that time, claimed 6 England wickets while playing for the Punjab Chief Minister's XI. Now ranking among the world's top leg spinners Mushtaq Ahmed, off spinner Saqlain Mushtaq and an uncapped rookie leg spinner Danish Kaneria who has gained some goods experience by playing for the Pakistan junior teams, have been included in the 15-man one day squad. Pinch hitter Shahid Afridi is staging a comeback to provide the visitors some anxious moments and the crowd some extra ordinary thrill as well as to give his own captain more bowling options. Besides being a strong hitter of the ball, Afridi is also a useful spin bowler.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) is obsessed with the mania of building the team for World Cup 2003. In the process they do not even hesitate to crucify some vital components of the team to accommodate the youngsters. They perhaps do not realize that there is no short cut to experience and creating a team of tiny tots for a prestigious event like the World Cup would be a big folly. The axing of a star batsman like Ijaz Ahmed who is capable of turning the tables at any time, from the squad against England has surprised the cricket lovers. The new comers like Saleem Elahi and Faisal Iqbal may be talented youngsters but have performed no wonders so far. I am of the view that the youngsters in line to replace a senior player must be outstanding and not average. Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed are said to be among those earmarked 'to be shown the door' in the near future. They are in the present squad for the purpose of expediency.
A host of observers feel that the present tour is the most sensitive mission for the England team because their success will not be determined by results as much as by public and personal relations. The opinion is based on the inference drawn from the row that took place between umpire Shakoor Rana and skipper Mike Gatting in 1987. They perhaps do not realize that Pakistanis are a very generous as well as broad-minded people. They do not keep their minds and memories bogged down with unpleasant events of the past. It was nice to hear umpire Shakoor Rana declare that he would have welcomed Mike Gatting with open arms had he come as Manager of the England team.
Though Pakistan appears to be a stronger side on paper and is also blessed with the advantage of home grounds and the crowd, it is rather too early to speculate about outcome of the series. The first one-day international at Karachi on October 24 might provide some clue for a guessing game in this respect. One must, however, appreciate the grand preparations that the PCB has made for this tour. Floodlights have been installed at National Stadium Karachi and the Rawalpindi Stadium. Electronic score boards are coming up at major venues in the country while the Gaddafi Stadium Lahore is being equipped with a giant TV display screen. This will bring Pakistan in line with the most modern cricket playing countries in the world. With the weather also taking a pleasant turn, let us hope the cricket lovers enjoy a highly exciting feast of cricket.