Pakistan's true test of strength
Pakistan have won 12 ODIs on the trot - beginning with a dead rubber against India in November 2007- but, as impressive as that feat is, don't let it fool you. Eleven of those wins came against relatively weak sides: Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Pakistan have not faced tough opponents since their tour to India and Tuesday's match will provide a fair indication of their progress.
Geoff Lawson, the Pakistan coach, said the emphatic nature of the wins against Bangladesh - six in a row, the smallest margin being 23 runs and the largest being 152 - was down to his team's clinical performances. "After the Bangladesh series in Pakistan, I sat down and analysed the games," Lawson said. "In the end I was really happy with the way we played. We played well enough to not let them into the game. We've won 12 in a row for very good reason. We haven't let Bangladesh sneak into the game and show what they've got."
That maybe true but the Asia Cup, which starts later this month, and Champions Trophy in September will test whether Pakistan have built a formidable outfit under Shoaib Malik, who began his tenure as captain in May 2007. Especially since Pakistan's two most recent series against strong teams - India and South Africa - ended in defeats.
"One of our goals is to equal Australia's record [21 consecutive wins]," Lawson said. "To get to 22 wins we've got to play every game seriously and probably have to beat India a few times." For that to happen, the players who have been cashing in against the weaker teams must continue to churn out match-winning efforts, while the others must raise their performance.
Mohammad Yousuf's style of batting is such that he goes about accumulating runs quietly and before the opposition knows it, the Pakistan dressing room is applauding a half-century. Since the beginning of Pakistan's winning streak, Yousuf has scored 557 runs in 11 innings at an average of nearly 93. He did not play the IPL but kept himself busy by signing up for Lancashire, where he played five one-dayers and two Championship games. His form wasn't flash in the one-dayers - 62 runs in five innings - but he left England after scoring a double-century against Yorkshire in his last innings. He showed glimpses of that form during a fluent half-century in the tournament opener against Bangladesh.
Yousuf's consistency in the middle would provide the ideal follow-up to a solid opening pair, which has been a worry for Pakistan in recent times. Since the beginning of their winning streak, Pakistan has trialled five opening combinations and the most successful has been the current pairing of Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal. They've averaged nearly 88 in their last four innings and their individual form had also showed promise.
The Pakistan selectors, however, want them to score heavily in this series because they are not too happy with the combination. Between the lines, the pressure is more on Akmal to perform and make up for his below-par keeping.
There are other concerns too, the most significant being Shahid Afridi's batting form, which has slipped as much as he's improved as a bowler. He was one of the high-profile failures at the IPL - 81 runs in nine innings - and he failed once again to take the attack to Bangladesh during the final overs on Sunday. However, his bowling variations and subtle changes in pace have made him Pakistan's leading wicket-taker in recent months. His record against India isn't too impressive though - 30 wickets in 50 innings at over 60 each - and he needs to prove himself against tougher opposition.
Collectively, Pakistan will face their first big hurdle on Tuesday as they strive to keep their unbeaten run going. Individually, youngsters like the impressive left-arm fast bowler Wahab Riaz, who's only played Zimbabwe and Bangladesh before, will come up against quality batsmen. They have the momentum going for them but they will need to increase intensity levels to record win No. 13.
George Binoy is a staff writer at Cricinfo