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Sidharth Monga in Mohali
November 7, 2007
At Mohali, cricket will not be the only thing on the mind. One nation is going through turmoil back home, which might make even the thought of playing cricket absurd. The other has seen two of its greatest cricketers shy away from the Test captaincy within six weeks of each other. Their national selectors are likely to announce a new captain sometime during the match. So taking one eye away from the India-Pakistan match, might be forgiven.
The teams, however, will be wary of distraction, especially after giving the impression in Guwahati that they were both still catching breath after losses to better teams just before. Guwahati's slow, unpredictable track didn't help the entertainment either, but successive low-on-drama India-Pakistan matches are rare.
Home advantage? What home advantage?
They may have the support of 30,000, but home advantage matters little in India-Pakistan matches: seven Indian wins from 22 home matches says as much. More Pakistani players speak Punjabi, the local language, than Indian players and though India have a competitive pace attack, a lively Mohali track might favour Pakistan's pace more.
Shoaib Akhtar only ambled in at Guwahat but still threatened with pure pace in: steaming-in here, he might provide a real treat. The last time he played in Mohali, 2-18 helped reduce India to 196. His cohorts, Umar Gul and Rao Iftikhar Anjum, also have good memories: between them they took 5 for 62 in the Champions Trophy match against South Africa last year. Pakistan were, however, bowled out for 89 in reply.
The pitch and their spinners' success leaves India grappling with a central question: do they play three pacers and Irfan Pathan and drop a spinner? Dew in the evening - a cast-iron certainty here in the first week of November - might also make the pair of Murali Kartik and Harbhajan Singh one spinner too many. Dropping one is a tricky enough decision; choosing one of the two is trickier still. Sreesanth, if the decision is made, will relish the conditions as replacement.
The other question is how to fit in Virender Sehwag, should they want to. On form, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa are certain starters. That leaves only the openers - Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly - or Pathan, though they wouldn't want to lose out on the latter's bowling.
Pakistan might play four pace bowlers to exploit the conditions. Geoff Lawson, their coach, indicated that Sohail Tanvir will make his first start of the series. "Sohail has a very good long-term future in Pakistan cricket. I think he is in the frontline for selection here. He is a good man to have in the team, a good left-armer and a definite possibility."
Even if Tanvir becomes part of a four-man pace attack and Rahman drops out, they have Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Malik, both capable of bowling their full quotas on helpful tracks, to fall back on.
Lawson defended the opening combination of Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal. "The pair is settling down. Salman Butt is back in form, which is really good news. And Akmal can bat too; he has scored a Test hundred at this ground."
What Lawson didn't disagree on was that Pakistan needed to play brighter cricket. "We were a bit slack in the first game. (But) we are not got looking at too many changes. Nobody played particularly badly. We are not looking at individuals, but the whole team needs to lift their game."
Two Champions Trophy matches, around the same time last year, provide interesting reference: as mentioned, Pakistan got blown away in the first few overs under the lights. Two days later, however, Australia, chasing 250, came out attacking under lights and blew India away in the first 15 overs. The first few overs under lights, when the wicket is at its most responsive to pace, might just hold the key tomorrow too. India might also have a new Test captain by then.
India: Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Robin Uthappa, Mahendra Dhoni, (capt, wk), Irfan Pathan, Harbhajan Singh, RP Singh, Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth, Murali Kartik, Rohit Sharma, Praveen Kumar
Pakistan: Salman Butt, Kamran Akmal (wk), Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Misbah-ul-Haq, Shoaib Malik (capt), Shahid Afridi, Sohail Tanvir, Umar Gul, Shoaib Akhtar, Rao Iftikhar Anjum, Abdur Rehman, Imran Nazir, Yasir Hameed, Fawad Alam
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala