India vs Pakistan, 1st Test, Lahore January 12, 2006

Continuity the key



Shahid Afridi's success against India - and his last Test appearance - make his selection almost self-explanatory © Getty Images

Pre-match press conferences should generally be taken with pinches of salt. In them the pitches are never poor, always sporting and with a little something for everyone. Team compositions are never announced, only inferred. No one player holds the key to anything, all players in the opposing camp are vital and unless a real minnow is involved, both teams start evenly. The toss is always important but never unhealthily so and first sessions are always crucial but not critical.

The first question pitched to Inzamam-ul-Haq regarding the state of the pitch was banal enough but because it wasn't about goodwill, hospitality and political ties, it told a story in itself. For the first time in three series, the cricket takes precedence and it hasn't come soon enough because both teams are playing some decidedly competitive cricket. Inzamam's press conferences are generally straightforward enough; straight answers come to straight questions but in recent times, they have become even more so. Primarily, it is because, in the Pakistan camp these days, relative stability is to be found.

As has been hinted in the run-up to this series, little is likely to change or be surprising about the eleven Pakistanis who turn up tomorrow. Apart from finding openers, the major dilemma with Pakistan's opening combination was that when they were found, they were lost almost immediately thereafter. Ten opening combinations in thirteen Tests says less about a lack of natural openers in the country than it does about the selectors' willingness to give one pair an extended trial. Forget extended, even more than two Tests together few pairs got. For continuity's sake more than anything else, Shoaib Malik, as Inzamam and Bob Woolmer have been keen to assert, is likely to retain his position as opener. Against a long and strong batting line-up, his bowling will provide one of two much-needed things - relief for the main bowlers and occasional partnership-breaking potential.

The only other position over which hovered some doubt was at number six. With Asim Kamal's exclusion from the squad, a question of three has become one of two: Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq. Inzamam was evasive obviously saying simply, "We have two good allrounders in our squad. One provides us with a spinning option and the other a fast bowling. They will help us with options in either scenario whether the pitch takes spin or whether it is helpful to faster bowlers. It is a good situation for us to have in the squad." But it is likely, according to some in the team management that Afridi will play. His performances against India - in fact anyone - over the last year and that he scored 92 and took four wickets in his last Test appearance only add more credibility to that claim. The rest is self-explanatory.

As for the rest outside team selection, who knows? Who is the stronger side, how will the pitch play, will the weather play a part, is it really as black and white as Pakistan's bowlers against India's batsmen, will the toss be crucial? Rumours of a green-top were, like Twain's death, greatly exaggerated and the pitch looks remarkably similar to the one on which England crumpled in December. In between then and now, the weather took centre stage for a while but even that, as temperatures rise slowly and the sun sheds its shyness, is receding slightly. The weathermen, almost as perfunctory as cricket press conferences, say a cold spell is expected again, possibly during the course of the match but by then the game will have begun writing its story.

Really, these are all side issues, only diverting attention from the morrow, when Shoaib charges in to Sehwag, or when Pathan skips in to Butt. Then we will await various, mouthwatering themes that will, fingers crossed, embed themselves underneath the very skin of this series. Will Shoaib be able to maintain his hostility through the series? How will Rana Naved-ul-Hasan acquit himself now that he is a frontline bowler? How will Danish Kaneria bowl against India, now with a reputation to uphold rather than make? And is Inzamam finally going to succumb to the law of averages that afflicts every great batsman, Bradman apart? From tomorrow, the real stories begin.

Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt 2 Shoaib Malik 3 Younis Khan 4 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt) 5 Mohammad Yousuf 6 Shahid Afridi 7 Kamran Akmal (wk) 8 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan 9 Shoaib Akhtar 10 Mohammad Sami 11 Danish Kaneria.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo