Pakistan in India, 2007-08 November 20, 2007

Pakistan ponder their options



Shoaib Akhtar wants to leave his mark in front of the biggest audience of all, in what could be his final tour of India © AFP

He arrives a minute before his team-mates and sits on the grass to do some stretches. The camera crews close in immediately. Even when he's not hurtling in to bowl his thunderbolts, Shoaib Akhtar is news. After his latest misadventure at the T20 World Cup, he's also on his best behaviour.

This is the tour where he wants his bowling to make the headlines. Having made his name at the Kolkata Test on Pakistan's tour here in 1999, he missed the 2005 series through injury. With the schedules being what they are, this could be his final tour of India, and he wants to leave his mark in front of the biggest audience of all.

"I'm fit and feeling good," he says. "Everything's gone well so far on this tour." He certainly looks relaxed enough, laughing and joking with team-mates during fielding practice and then walking across to the nets humming an old Hindi tune. He doesn't really strain himself at the nets either, but after five one-day games packed into 14 days and a Test match just two days away, you don't expect him to.

It's the identity of the men who will partner him that remains a bit of a mystery. Umar Gul looks certainly to share the new ball, which leaves Sohail Tanvir and Mohammad Sami to contest the third pace slot. Sami was outstanding at times on the last tour of India, and has been in red-hot form in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy back home, but Tanvir, in addition to being a handy batsman, offers a left-handed option that Pakistan haven't had since Wasim Akram departed the scene.

On a flat, low pitch, they should also go in with two spinners, even if that means a rather long tail. In conversation with journalists during the net session, Talat Ali Malik, the team manager, seemed to hint that the team management would keep faith in specialist openers. That should mean that Yasir Hameed, who played a superb innings in Bangalore on the 2005 tour, gets a chance to build up a partnership with Salman Butt.

The middle order is where there are fewest problems, with Faisal Iqbal joining the old firm of Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf. Yousuf's Grey-Nicholls bat is almost incapable of inelegant strokes and he went through almost the entire repertoire in the nets this morning, while Younis was at his ebullient best during the throwing games organised by David Dwyer, the fitness trainer.

Dwyer is the nephew of Bob Dwyer, who coached the greatest Wallaby side of all time to the rugby World Cup in 1991. But working with some of these players is a far cry from training superb athletes like Tim Horan, Jason Little and David Campese. "It's certainly a challenge," he says with a smile. "In Australia, you grow up with such a strong sporting culture. You play cricket or rugby or Aussie Rules, and if anything else, you pop down to the beach for a spot of surfing."

One of his drills has the batsmen up against the bowlers, with the ball being thrown around before someone from the other team can tag you. Initially, it's done with throw to hand, and after that with throws on the bounce. The players enjoy it, and there's plenty of camaraderie within what is largely a young group. After India's dominant displays in the one-day games and their series win in England, they're clearly favourites for the Tests, but as Pakistan showed the last time they journeyed across the border, these tags count for very little.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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