Something's gotta give
England last lost a Test series in December 2003, in Sri Lanka. Pakistan won their last Test series one month later, in New Zealand. Something, you feel, has got to give.
One win, one draw which, accounting for dropped catches and lost time, could have been another win - and still the Pakistan team for the Lahore Test is a changed one. Such is the way with Pakistan; they have changed their line-up in every Test since Bob Woolmer took over and although often the changes, as now, have been enforced, clearly Greg Chappell isn't the only experimenteur on the subcontinent.
Here, Pakistan will be without two key men; if Shahid Afridi's absence is self-inflicted and deserving, then little can be done about the absence of Younis Khan, whose brother died over the weekend. Contrastingly, both have been at the heart of Pakistan's progress over the last year and their absence is likely to be, in the words of the management, a "big blow."
As unfortunate as it is, an opportunity re-opens for both Asim Kamal and Hasan Raza, as Inzamam said to reporters today. "Younis is our team's main batsman and a key player. His loss definitely makes a difference to the side and especially to our batting. But we have players to take over; Asim Kamal is coming in as No. 3. His performances are good for us internationally."
With eight fifties in 11 Tests, Kamal's is a puzzling predicament. From his performances, from his scores in pressure situations, in different countries, he seems equipped as an international player. Yet no hundreds have emanated from his fifties and it just leaves more of a question mark on him than perhaps he warrants, a mark that contributes to his occasional exclusion from the team. He still has, though, more scores above fifty, and a higher average, than Michael Clarke, which creates its own compelling argument about fashionable and unfashionable players. At one down - a position where he failed against Sri Lanka last year - against Harmison, Hoggard and Flintoff, more questions are likely to be asked.
The element of uncertainty about Hasan Raza playing at No. 6 is suddenly more pronounced. He gatecrashed Multan - at the expense of Kamal - on the back of spectacular run of form, the culmination of which was the matchwinning 71 not out at the Bagh-e-Jinnah against England. At Multan, though, he appeared a rabbit stuck in some particularly bright headlights, scoring 0 and 1 and suggesting perhaps, that that solitary run was also flattering. Pakistan's proclivity for changing line-ups means that a failure here will not bring a definitive end, but Raza must know that, fairly or not, an innings of substance is needed from him.
Quietly though, even more than the line-up and the pitch, it is the weather that is increasingly the key player here. Forecasts of rain as well as heavy fog over the next week are a worry, Inzamam admitted. "The weather, the fog and the forecast rain is a bit of a worry for this match. This match is starting a little late here [10 am], because if it gets a little dark towards the close, we have floodlights here which we didn't at the other two grounds. But if it is foggy then the lights won't make a difference so the weather conditions are a major worry."
The afternoon before the match, the city received a light brief drizzle and the ground, by early afternoon, hovered in an ominous yet peculiarly English gloom. The Englishness was mirrored in the pitch as well, until two days ago at least when there was a healthy green tinge to it. Predictably, it has now taken on a more familiar, dry, bare mien; the type, in fact, that induces in Inzamam a formulaic response. "The pitch is looking good. There is something in it for the batsmen and something for the bowlers as well. It's not a hugely spinning track and neither will it assist the faster bowlers too much but it is a sporting wicket, a good one for a Test match."
Pakistan's hesitancy at Faisalabad, as well as the light, ultimately robbed them of the chance to treat this game as inconsequential. Publicly, Inzamam is striving for a win but having realised how close they eventually came in Faisalabad when thoughts of a win didn't emerge until the final afternoon, he was more pragmatic here. "You can't really play for a draw these days in Test matches. Even Faisalabad, where so much time was lost, we almost managed to win. Every match these days, you have to play for a win."
His role will be most important. He has rarely looked like getting out in this series and if the absence of Younis might have precipitated a move up the order for him, as some felt, he was having none of it. "I will play at No. 5. Kamal has come in at No. 3 and I am playing well enough so we won't change that."
The approach is revealing of his captaincy; he is more willing to crisis-manage from lower down than perhaps imposing himself from one down. That delicate balance, between first ensuring safety before even thinking of attacking surfaced most apparently in Faisalabad and has marked his time as leader. It's difficult to assess given the personnel Pakistan has, but also difficult to argue against given how his batting has flourished.
Eventually though, all these factors (weather permitting of course) will go into the making of only one question, one that decides this series. Is winning a series after two years more important to Pakistan than avoiding a series loss after two years is to England?
: 1 Salman Butt, 2 Shoaib Malik, 3 Asim Kamal, 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Hasan Raza, 7 Kamran Akmal (wk), 8 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, 9 Shoaib Akhtar, 10 Mohammad Sami, 11 Danish Kaneria
England (probable): 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Michael Vaughan (capt), 3 Ian Bell, 4 Paul Collingwood, 5 Kevin Pietersen, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Matthew Hoggard, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 James Anderson
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo