England prepare for final surge
England's cricketers had their first glimpse of the blanket security arrangements for their 48-hour stop-over in Karachi, as they practised at the National Stadium ahead of Thursday's day-night match against Pakistan. With up to 3000 policemen drafted in to exercise crowd control, and the elite paramilitary Rangers on hand to protect the players as well, authorities on both sides are optimistic that the match will pass without a glitch.
In the midst of it all, there is an intriguing tussle developing on the pitch. With three matches to come, the sides are locked at 1-1 after the Lahore leg of the series, although it is Pakistan who have the momentum, having seen off a sluggish opposition by seven wickets in the most recent fixture on Monday. On that occasion, England could justifiably claim to have been hampered by a late night of BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards, but since then they've had two days to recover, and prepare for a final surge of effort before the Christmas break.
England, however, will have to bounce back without the services of their most destructive one-day batsman. Kevin Pietersen has flown home early, after aggravating a rib injury while batting in the second match, and his absence will be sorely felt by an England batting line-up that gelled impressively in the opening fixture, where Pietersen himself slammed a 35-ball half-century.
"Pietersen is a big blow to England because he is a very dangerous player," said Bob Woolmer, Pakistan's coach, as he spoke to the press at the National Stadium. "But we can't underestimate England at all and we've still got to beat them to win the series."
Pietersen's absence will be compounded by the presence in Pakistan's starting line-up of Shahid Afridi, who missed the Lahore Test plus the first two one-day internationals while serving a ban for tampering with the state of the pitch at Faisalabad. "He will certainly play," confirmed Inzamam-ul-Haq, Pakistan's captain, "because he gives strength to our batting and bowling."
Woolmer added that Pakistan had a full squad to choose from, and though he refused to speculate who would make way for Afridi's return, the likely fall guy is his fellow legspinner, Danish Kaneria, who suffered a nasty-looking shoulder injury while fielding during the second match. Shoaib Akhtar, who bowled with heavy strapping on his leg during his five-wicket blitz on Monday, is geared up for a further onslaught on England's batting.
England, meanwhile, are in a state of mild disarray. They are already lacking the services of Michael Vaughan in the middle-order, but Pietersen's absence is a huge blow to the balance of the side. It is expected that the Supersub, Vikram Solanki, who came to the rescue with a finely crafted 39 not out, will step into the breach, with Ian Bell or Kabir Ali likely to fill the final space on the 12-man teamsheet.
After a week in which the nebulous issue of Supersubs has come under increasing scrutiny, even the softly-spoken Inzamam decided enough was enough. "The rule should be scrapped from limited-overs cricket," he said, before conceding that it could still be workable if the substitute is named after the toss.
Talking of the toss, it is likely to be the least critical of the five in this series, given that Karachi has fewer issues of dew in the evening, and longer daylight hours as well. It has plenty other issues to compensate, mind you, although Inzamam was confident that the game would pass peacefully.
"There are no security fears for sportsmen in this city," he said. "I think more and more international matches should be organised here." If everything goes to plan tomorrow, Inzamam should have his wish.
Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt, 2 Kamran Akmal (wk), 3 Younis Khan, 4 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 5 Mohammad Yousuf, 6 Shahid Afridi, 7 Shoaib Malik, 8 Abdul Razzaq, 9 Rana Naved, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Mohammad Sami, 12 Arshad Khan.
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick (capt), 2 Matt Prior, 3 Andrew Strauss, 4 Vikram Solanki, 5 Andrew Flintoff, 6 Paul Collingwood, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ian Blackwell, 9 Liam Plunkett, 10 James Anderson, 11 Steve Harmison, 12 Ian Bell.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo