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January 20, 2006
Yesterday, Agha Zahid was the most sought-after man in Pakistan. As head curator for the Pakistan board, it was to his door most people rushed after Gaddafi Stadium produced over 1200 runs but only eight wickets. By some estimates, he gave over 50 interviews at Iqbal Stadium yesterday afternoon. Today, he even found himself the subject of an editorial in the Daily Times, a leading English-language daily, which called for him to be flogged in public in Lahore. It was, it should be hastily added, more tongue-in-cheek than serious comment but revealing nonetheless how the Faisalabad pitch now shares with Sehwag, Dravid, Inzamam and Shoaib, headline status.
What pitch will we be encumbered with then? On inspection, in its beige hue, it looks like Lahore's although on closer inspection, some suggest it might be harder. What grass there is on it is dead. Against England, two months ago, the pitch ultimately didn't do what was expected of it - turn on the last day. This, even after Shahid Afridi and some batsmen did their best to hasten its deterioration although the strip next to it is being used here.
Clearly though it is a source of much humour among those who know. When Inzamam was asked about it, with a smile he said, "We can see a little bit of grass on the pitch." A little later he added, "It will be a better wicket, in the sense that if there is a result then it is a good wicket." If you think about it, actually that says nothing at all.
Rahul Dravid also smiled when asked for his thoughts. "It was slightly different from Lahore. A bit more grass on it and it may change as the game goes on." Michael Holding bellowed (although that might be because he was asked whether he would pull a muscle on this pitch as he had joked of the Lahore strip) and said, "This is a pitch for the beautiful batsmen." Yesterday, Bob Woolmer couldn't conceal a smirk when he said it looked a little better. In the Indian camp, one bowler simply laughed when asked whether he would get more joy from this pitch. Bowlers, it looks likely, might need some sympathy tomorrow.
In The News, Inzamam denied he had asked for the grass to be shaved off on the eve of the first Test and asked for similar pitches to the ones that were used against England. The dead grass here was his choice, because he reckons, "When you have live grass the ball seams around a lot on the first day and then the pitch eases out. But when you have dry grass it remains consistent and the ball keeps on deviating off the blades and there is also spin on all five days. Ultimately it all depends on how the weather behaves."
And there it is. No one has really taken into account quite how much the weather has hampered pitch preparations. Poor Zahid was at pains to explain yesterday and since the start of this series that rain, cold and damp have severely affected his work. During the Lahore Test, he was already in Faisalabad combating the effects of rain. For what it's worth, he told AFP yesterday, "We can only do our best but we can't beat the weather. We need a strong sun to make a hard wicket but the rain three days back and mild sunshine since then has made our job very difficult."
The sun has been shining for two days now and the forecast has lightened up, but both are notoriously fickle at this time of the year and too prone to change. Lahore too started in sunshine. Zahid says the sun, and plenty of it, is essential now for the pitch to play sportingly. You have to feel for him, for he has become a convenient and early scapegoat for the weather, the itinerary and his employers.
Dravid, at least, is willing to give him the benefit of doubt: "I would hope the curator has made the best wicket in the time he has got. Let's give it a chance and see how it pans out." If it doesn't, then maybe the more pertinent questions will be those asking the PCB why they scheduled the series at this time of the year and in this region and not Zahid about why he can't produce a pitch for Test match cricket.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?