A chance to move forward
India and Pakistan contests are nothing if not bloated with significance and implications for both teams. For Pakistan, the forthcoming series will begin to answer two longstanding questions at the center of Pakistan cricket and two that hold repercussions well beyond the next year.
At the heart of the first lies, unsurprisingly, Shoaib Akhtar and the Pakistan team, and more specifically whether the two are compatible. In most countries, it wouldn't even be a question - it shouldn't be - but in Pakistan we are like this only. The last month has been a strange, almost perverse test for Pakistan's complex relationship with Shoaib Akhtar.
On his arrival back from Australia, Akhtar did what Akhtar does. He was outspoken, self-obsessed, injured and he pissed a lot of people off. He said, forlornly, that he carried the attack single-handedly in Australia. And who could doubt him? After all Danish Kaneria, that notoriously uncommitted, work-shy lay-about only bowled almost double the overs and contrived to pick up more wickets than he did. This is why Pakistan loves to hate him.
He evoked the same sort of muddled reaction he usually does from the PCB; 'hard talks', allegations of poor discipline (really?) and poorer fitness (never!), endless committees and inquiries. Should he go to India or shouldn't he? And just when everyone had had enough finally came the news that he wouldn't. Relief? Not really. Uncertain? Well, any attack losing, if nothing else, one of its top bowlers (and surely there is no doubt that he is) would be. This is why Pakistan needs him.
This is an uneasy duplicity. Before his pullout people insisted that Pakistan could adjust to life without him. Now, when he is finally out, the insistence doesn't seem quite so forceful. Of course whether Pakistan or Shoaib Akhtar like it or not, the question will finally be answered. Such is the magnitude of his attitudinal problems that were Pakistan to win the series without him, his future would be immediately uncertain. If, on the other hand, Pakistan lose, then his standing as the premier fast bowler of the land means he will come back, vindicated and possibly harboring greater delusions of the self. Both scenarios offer further headaches for the PCB, who, had they tried, could not have mishandled the issue more.
But then no administration has been as schizophrenic as the PCB in the legacy it wants to leave. This leads us nicely to the second question - that of leadership. If the PCB has not been as transparent as it promised, it has tried gamely to revitalise domestic cricket. If the PCB has stalled over the constitution, it has tried to engender a sense of stability in the team. If the PCB has bungled the Shoaib affair, it has identified when it was needed most, a leader for the future.
Intermittently, for some time now, Younis Khan has been, not identified, but whispered of as a potential leader. In an interview with WAC upon becoming captain after the 2003 World Cup, Rashid Latif had earmarked him, off the record, as the man he was to groom as captain after him. In an interview with Cricinfo in November Shaharyar Khan, also off the record, had acknowledged him as, potentially, the next captain. Imran Khan, on the record, very publicly backed him as captain. Rahul Dravid, who seems as good a judge of character as any, is reportedly very impressed by him.
Thus, in this context, his elevation to the vice-captaincy takes on considerably greater significance than previous appointments because it is perhaps a semi-official recognition that he may be the man to lead Pakistan. If so, it shows on the PCB's part unprecedented foresight. Rarely - no let's be honest, never - has any Pakistani player had the fortune to be identified and groomed as a leader.
The timing seems right. A grueling, high-profile tour on which, given Inzamam's back, means it isn't beyond the realms of possibility that he will be called upon to lead at some point. It will provide invaluable experience. And if Inzamam's tenure is as fragile as rumours suggest, then at 27 and with 32 Tests behind him Younis is as ready, by Pakistani standards, as he will ever be to take over. Above all, his own position in the team finally seems secure.
His batting, the erratic nature of which was the only obstacle to his place, is in better shape currently than it has been for some time. He is still beset by his inability to convert scores; his one fifty in Australia should have been one century and at least three fifties, but barring his horror shot at Perth, he looked reliable. So he had an indifferent year last year until he was recalled against Sri Lanka, but by bestowing as much faith in him now when he is in form, his confidence is only likely to be boosted further. If he succeeds, Pakistan's leadership dilemma is resolved. If he doesn't, a more familiar state of panic awaits as does the return to a vacuum of leadership.
Last year, a series against India brought with it, in the shape of Bob Woolmer, a decision that still could have a profound impact on Pakistan cricket. This year's series, it seems, is set to do the same.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.