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November 19, 2005
Iqbal stadium, when these two sides are involved, needs no introduction, although the riot of retail that surrounds the ground - you can book an airline ticket, get a haircut, buy stationary and gulp down kebabs all within a hair's breadth - warrants mention. With a steady bustle of life, an unusually festive feel permeates through a venue indelibly associated with murkier, conspiratorial affairs. The presence of an amusement park, rickety pirate ship attached, within the stadium grounds adds a bizarre embellishment.
Although not as bizarre, the Pakistan team is ensconced within unfamiliarity: they find themselves going into the second Test with a lead to protect, something they haven't done in a series of note in two years. More than the questions about whether Shoaib Akhtar can sustain his Multan effervescence or even on the composition of the side, this one intrigues. We know what a crushing defeat, despair and despondency elicit from the Pakistan team after the ripostes of the last two years. But quite what confidence will draw from them is impossible to foretell.
No clues are held in the last time they faced a similar situation, only more uncertainty. Having beaten South Africa, they came to this very ground. The final day held all results alive, and Pakistan first beat the draw, then chased nervously, before deciding a draw and a series win wasn't such a bad result after all. Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, said, "I'd like to think that we have built momentum from the last game. We want to build on that and we've been working on it and talking about it already. We're very intent on finishing the series here. England haven't batted that well throughout the tour, they have in bits and pieces but we need to take this opportunity. If we can finish a three-test series here, that would be the icing on the cake."
In practice, if not on paper, Pakistan look buoyant. Salman Butt has diligently practiced playing the short ball, Shoaib Akhtar has jogged, bowled, batted and had his limbs stretched with alien zest, and Mohammad Yousuf has had extra long batting sessions. Even those not involved - like Asim Kamal and Arshad Khan - have bounded in, led by the interminable cheerleading and jousting of Shahid Afridi.
All this doesn't, of course, preclude changes in the line-up - that much is always certain with Pakistan. Putting the pitch aside momentarily, the pivotal change is, as Woolmer conceded, likely to be Shabbir Ahmed's non-inclusion after his action was reported yet again after Multan. Whether he should have been rushed back to Multan is now moot, but his importance as the Test showed, is not in doubt.
Woolmer said of the impact of Shabbir's expected absence, "Shabbir is a critical player for us. As a bowler, he gives us bounce and a different type of angle. That always helps. Tall bowlers are generally successful, like Harmison, Flintoff and McGrath." To that should be added powers of constriction. Given the luminescent modes of operation of Shoaib, Mohammad Sami and Danish Kaneria, Shabbir's frugal `everyman' is a vital, contrasting complement. In providing a check on runs, as well as picking up wickets, Shabbir brings balance.
In the irrepressible shape of Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Pakistan can call upon a replacement, not like-for-like and only maybe adequate. Perplexingly, Rana's Test record is as appalling as his ODI record is glittering - he says it is a question of mindset. The commitment is not doubted, but eight wickets in five Tests at over 70 and an economy rate (4.01) so high it isn't right to call it economy, bring plenty of doubt. Some of it is assuaged by a successful county season, some more by his knack of sniffing out any swing possible and some more still by a plentiful bag of variations he drags with him. Furthermore, as Woolmer pointed out, he knows how to bowl here; he took 11 wickets in a recent domestic game.
The other probable change brings the nature of the pitch to attention. Light brown and dry, it prompted Woolmer to mutter knowingly, "It certainly looks as though there is more opportunity to turn here." Not only the pitch, but the cheek behind the remark somehow deems it appropriate that Pakistan's cheekiest tweaker of situations and matches over the last year - Shahid Afridi - is in line for a Test place. With the experiment with Shoaib Malik likely, and rightly, to be extended (Woolmer was "happy with the openers, I think both did very well"), Afridi could come in at number six, a potentially damaging position. Spare a thought, though, for Hasan Raza. The decision to play him at Multan, ahead of the unfashionably solid Asim Kamal might have been untimely; the decision to drop him now could be even more so, especially for Raza's career.
Predictably, in Woolmer's words, "both teams start 50-50." At least, given neutral umpires, we can at least be sure that the city is unlikely to host a repeat of 18 years ago. But given the nature of the first Test and England's rigid belief that almost all cricket should be played till the very last ball, till the last nails are chewed, till bums have fallen off seats, we may be onto another humdinger here.
Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt, 2 Shoaib Malik, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Shahid Afridi, 7 Kamran Akmal (wk), 8 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, 9 Mohammad Sami, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Danish Kaneria
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Michael Vaughan (capt) 4 Ian Bell, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Shaun Udal, 10 Mathew Hoggard, 11 Steve Harmison
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?