June 1, 2003

Into the lion's mouth from swinging Dambulla

In last month's Sri Lanka triangular featuring three evenly matched sides, Pakistan came out a close second - quite an achievement for a team full of inexperienced youngsters.

Their earlier win in Sharjah had received gentle praise with most critics reserving judgment till the Pakistan team, revamped after a dismal World Cup, faced quality opposition. The Bank Alfalah Cup provided that test as Pakistan was pitted against Sri Lanka and New Zealand under rather trying conditions in Dambulla.

Cricket in Sri Lanka is normally a feast of runs on placid tracks but bowler-friendly conditions in Dambulla were a total surprise. All three teams struggled to get past 200 runs on most occasions and only Pakistan managed to breach that barrier.

Dambulla's swing, seam and spin had another down side for Pakistan's batsmen as it exposed their technique - most of them will have to put in lots of effort to cope in England.

Taufeeq Umar, already under pressure, failed and was dealt a severe blow by being left out of the upcoming England tour. A left-handed opener is always important but Taufeeq's one-day technique coupled with some poor shot selection leading to his downfall. His preference for dragging balls to leg rather than driving through covers has let him down too often.

Mohammad Hafeez's batting at the top was also disappointing and even in his 53 against Sri Lanka he showed little intent to get on with the game, failing to pick up singles when the going was tough. The coach needs to remind him to place the ball and rotate the strike.

This tournament proved the need for a genuine fast-scoring left-hand opener and Imran Farhat fits that bill nicely. Pakistan's excruciatingly slow starts pressurised Youhana and Younis Khan to go for runs without settling in properly. But Imran Nazir, a right-hand batsman, has been chosen for the NatWest Challenge against England.

Imran could help with quick runs if, indeed, chief selector Aamer Sohail's strange reasoning comes true: "Besides, [Imran] is not only a popular choice of the followers of the game," said Sohail, "but we also tested him in the nets on Monday evening. He looked in good nick." Pakistan fans hope his slashing at balls outside off and those shades of Shahid Afridi have gone after being left out in the cold for a while. But it does mean that Pakistan head to England with an all right-hand batting line-up; something not quite ideal for diversity.

The middle order looks in good shape and Shoaib Malik has been outstanding after his return to international cricket. He has blended perfectly into the squad as a genuine batting allrounder and has the ability to rotate strike as well as hit big shots when required. He paces his innings well and is ideal for the No. 6 position.

All too often, Pakistan has promoted a lower-order batsman to open the innings or bat No. 3 after one or two good innings. They would be well advised to not repeat this with Shoaib Malik - he and Rashid Latif may come in very handy in England if the habit of top-order crashes continues.

The bowlers impressed in Dambulla but Mohammad Sami's lack of control over extras remained shocking. He needs to get into the nets and work out a solution, or England will be handed a bounty in conditions that are already sure to be alien to the young team.

Shoaib Akhtar was brilliant in the league games, but to the detriment of the team he sat out the final after yet more problems of his own making. The ball-tampering issue needs to be looked at closely as this is not helping Pakistan's image one iota.

For the NatWest Challenge, the selectors have made another correct move in dropping the out-of-form Faisal Iqbal, but Razzaq's omission has raised eyebrows. It is claimed that he is fatigued and needs to recharge his batteries, but a couple of days later he was back playing county cricket. To add fuel to the fire, media reports claim Razzaq was left out because of his attitude, despite originally being included in the squad. He was lacklustre in Sri Lanka and showed a vulnerability against spin, but against an English attack of mostly medium-quick bowlers he would have been quite an asset. Is Pakistan cricket again sounding a discordant note after all the post-World Cup clean-up hype?

Azhar Mahmood and a newcomer, Bilal Asad, have plugged this gap. While Azhar's recall is understandable after his performances in county cricket, the selection of a youngster for a mere three-match series does not make much sense. Azhar will obviously be the first-choice replacement but Bilal's likely duty may be to carry out gloves and drinks. It would have been better to blood him during the Bangladesh tour later this year.

The unfortunate Naved-ul-Hasan again missed out after an impressive debut in Sharjah. He is a handy medium pacer and a talented batsman who has been tried and tested at the international level - yet another Pakistan-style twist for such a crucial tour.

Misbah-ul-Haq and Imran Nazir will have an ideal chance for permanent spots if they can impress the selectors, still desperate to remedy the chronic lack of top-order candidates. Mohammad Hafeez is struggling at the top and just managing to squeeze in because of his allround capabilities.

Pakistan's performance in Sri Lanka can be dubbed more than satisfactory because the youngsters proved they could match top teams and most showed grit under trying conditions. The young brigade was under close scrutiny and did well enough to deserve further chances, rather than a reversion to some of the axed seniors.

The most pleasing sight was Pakistan's team spirit and even in the final, the side went down fighting.

Ed: If readers wish to correspond with the author, please email Taha Noor

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