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January 28, 2006
It's strange to think that we are here, in the final Test at Karachi, and so little has happened and even less of it on the field. Pakistan-India, in whatever context, in whatever time, always holds some significance, some importance, some gravity. Yet, over three weeks after the Indians arrived, poor weather and flat pitches have combined to produce the flattest of contests. All the smaller duels inside the broader battle - Shoaib Akhtar or Danish Kaneria to Virender Sehwag or Sachin Tendulkar, Irfan Pathan to Mohammad Yousuf, Anil Kumble to Inzamam-ul-Haq - have barely been broached. In effect, Karachi becomes a one-off shoot-out.
At least now, in the green, green grass of the National Stadium - it will not be cut drastically if at all say locals - and the sunshine of Karachi the promise of a result is truer than it has been thus far. Rarely has the growth of grass on a pitch been the subject of as much interest and innuendo as it was before this match. Whatever the reasons for the docility of Lahore and Faisalabad, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has been compelled to keep the grass plentiful here and that is likely to affect team compositions on both sides. Inzamam said, again and this time with some conviction, that it looks like a sporting pitch and that "the bowler will definitely get more help here than they have done throughout the series."
While India tackle a problem of numbers with their seam attack, the unavailability of Shoaib Malik makes, conversely, Pakistan's choice simpler. From the abundance of cheap runs scored at Faisalabad, Kamran Akmal's 78 as opener in the second innings at least held some implication, if only because he is likely to partner Salman Butt here. That allows Pakistan the option of retaining Abdul Razzaq, whose seam and cut, says conventional thinking, may prove useful here. The only five-wicket haul of his Test bowling career came at this ground, against Sri Lanka, on another first-day green-top. Additionally, his batting ensures the lower-order remains robust enough and means Rana Naved-ul-Hasan may start on the ground where his Test career began, in the same match in October 2004. With Shoaib fit - Inzamam confirmed it today as well - and Mohammad Asif promising, Pakistan can still go in with four men for the seam the pitch is expected to provide and Kaneria.
But by far their biggest concern, overtaking even the pitch's visage, is the back of Inzamam. Since not coming out to bat on the second morning of Faisalabad, Inzamam's back problem has veered between forcing him to miss this Test and possibly even end his career. He assuaged the latter concerns in a column earlier this week but whether or not he plays tomorrow is still uncertain. He was only willing to say, "I still have 24 hours for further treatment and I hope to get fit before the toss." Even within the team, consensus is absent; some say he will definitely play, others rate him as only 50-50 and others still as very doubtful. If he doesn't play, it might be a situation Pakistan will have to get used to over the coming year as the injury is recurring but as it is a decider, it would be foolish to rule out his will to play.
On a happier albeit irrelevant note, Pakistan are a traditionally daunting host at this ground, having lost only one Test ever, to England in darkness in December 2000. Against India, in five Tests, they have won two. More pertinently, the National Stadium is always good for a result; 20 out of 37 Tests here have provided one and it betters to eight in the last ten. In the longer-term, for Karachiites, a result is superfluous for tomorrow marks the city's return to big-time Test cricket, with due apologies to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka who visited in August 2003 and October 2004 respectively. Having been deprived of any international Test cricket for so long (as much due to the PCB's ambivalent attitude to the centre as to the concerns of visiting teams), if India's seaside jaunt passes off incident-free, then the wait might not be so long again.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Salman Butt, 2 Kamran Akmal (wk), 3 Younis Khan (vice-capt), 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Abdul Razzaq, 7 Shahid Afridi, 8 Shoaib Akhtar, 9 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, 10 Mohammad Asif, 11 Danish Kaneria
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