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

Ready and raring to go

Sourav Ganguly: Will he? Won't he? © AFP

Since the night of the fifth, when the Indians landed, quite a bit has changed in Lahore. The freezing chill has abated, the breeze isn't that biting, the sun has begun to shine pompously, and the tense pot of India-Pakistan cricket is just beginning to simmer.

There was no way this series was going to match the previous one in the hype stakes. While that was historic, this promises to be more cricket oriented; while that had three one-sided games, this might just involver tenser scraps; while that was watched by a smattering of spectators, this is bound to get far bigger audiences. The players too have had a more relaxed schedule - a practice game played in a picnic-like atmosphere, leisurely net sessions with only a few press corps watching.

One thing though is tough to change - the inevitable air of tension before the teams tee off. "A little bit of tension is always good," said Greg Chappell in the pre-match press conference. "We're glad that the Test is starting tomorrow. The players are slightly tense, keyed up but not overly. We're ready."

Which eleven of the 16 is ready to play, Rahul Dravid refused to divulge, though admitting that he had made up his mind on the team composition. Once Sourav Ganguly had made the cut, India's final XI was always going to cause umpteen speculations. Will he? Won't he? Considering that he was one of the first specialist batsmen to pad up in the nets, and that he practiced against the bowling machine after that, just might. He may not necessarily replace Yuvraj Singh, but come in for Gautam Gambhir. Will India decide to leave out both their specialist openers? Has there been any board directive? There are too many questions; it adds to the buzz.

The pitch too can never be too far from the spotlight. Barring any dramatic horticultural developments, it's tough to imagine a grassy surface for the Test and it may be Anil Kumble, rather than Shoaib Akhtar, who will be smacking his lips. Bounce it might, but Sehwag's scything horizontal-bat, and the fact that Indian batsmen usually struggle more against lateral movement, will be a cause for comfort.

That means that India, in all likelihood, will play both spinners, their strength, in conditions more Kolkata than Headingley. The bounce, which both Chappell and Dravid predicted, should aid Harbhajan Singh, who, in all probability, will walk out tomorrow for his first Test in Pakistan, Zaheer Khan, largely inconsistent in the warm-up game, may have to wait for his recall with Irfan Pathan and Ajit Agarkar sharing new-ball duties.

The series gives India, currently ranked No.2 in the rankings, a chance to improve on their gains of the last few months. It's their first big series abroad after their 2004 trip here and will provide indications of how far they have come under a new captain and coach. Both have insisted that the processes are more important than the final results and that improving day-by-day is the focus. Sometime during the series, though, maybe, just maybe, they may realise that when it comes to India v Pakistan, the destination is as important as the journey.

Indian team (likely) 1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Gautam Gambhir, 3 Rahul Dravid (capt), 4 VVS Laxman, 5 Sachin Tendulkar, 6 Yuvraj Singh, 7 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 8 Irfan Pathan, 9 Ajit Agarkar, 10 Harbhajan Singh, 11 Anil Kumble.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo