Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st ODI, Karachi January 19, 2009

The game is back and it is on


No definitive response came from Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik on whether Shoaib Akhtar would play, but it shouldn't be a surprise whichever way. © AFP
 

Finally, we return to the cricket. Dubai, doping, security, isolation, political and financial jiggery-pokery can all at long last be fully damned and forgotten for a while. On Tuesday, eleven plays eleven, on a 22-yard brown strip, in a big field, a ball and bat the utensils. We forget sometimes that, really, it is a simple and beautiful game.

As much as the elements, the line-ups, key performers and whatnot, rust and possible decay will be on the minds of Pakistan as they take on Sri Lanka. The two last met during the 2008 Asia Cup, in what seems another age. Since that meeting, Pakistan have played five ODIs against their opponents' 15. It is a staggering statistic. Where young men such as Ajantha Mendis have blossomed, young men such as Sohail Tanvir have not really had a chance to do much at all.

Sri Lanka come into the series primed, toughened and wary after a character-testing tour of Bangladesh. Pakistan are looser, altogether less coherent and with little practice other than domestic cricket behind them. It will make a difference even if conditions are Pakistan's. "The one edge I would give Sri Lanka is that they have played more than us," said Shoaib Malik. "They have been playing regularly and that gives them an advantage but we are at home."

It makes sense, then, that in such uncertain times Pakistan go back to what they know best: pace. Talk leading up to this has been of fast, bouncy pitches and Malik admitted, having looked at the surface yesterday, that he had considered going in with four fast bowlers. He wasn't so sure after a second look today, but given that there is only one specialist spinner in the squad, pace will be the way.

So, it was sadly predictable that Shoaib Akhtar would take some of the focus. Once Malik had added the caveat "if he plays" to some obligatory praise ("He is an asset"), reporters started sniffing. Will he play, Malik was repeatedly, perhaps unfairly, asked. No definitive response came, but it shouldn't be a surprise whichever way.

Pakistan may punt on a man who hasn't played an ODI in over a year, or they may stick to the three men who did so well in Abu Dhabi, Umar Gul, Sohail Tanvir and Rao Iftikhar Anjum.

Will Sri Lanka care that much? When you have such a potent spin attack of your own - the best according to Malik - the opposition matters less than it should. Pakistan have thought long and hard about Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan. Malik reckons Pakistan have played Mendis better than most teams but that is an assessment based on only 14 international overs. And Mendis has taken seven wickets even then.

Shahid Afridi reached the ground before any of his colleagues today and practised against a bowler from 15 yards, before asking a local to come at him with Murali's action. Pakistan's batsmen have done similar over the last couple of days.

The pitfall of such targeted preparation - and Mahela Jayawardene is too canny to not know it - is that it often allows someone less heralded to sneak through. Spin may be in the air, but Sri Lanka's pace reserves are nothing if not healthy. You'd think that missing Chaminda Vaas, Dammika Prasad and Lasith Malinga is a bum deal, but you might think again if you knew that Farvez Maharoof, Dilhara Fernando and Nuwan Kulasekara are around instead.

If pitches do really help the fast men in this series, then these aren't bad men to take advantage of it. Two very good bowlers, Jayawardene said when he arrived, "but we have other very good ones as well." If their batting clicks - as it hasn't since the Asia Cup - then there really aren't many better-equipped ODI sides around.

Thus, a fine series is set. Pakistan will battle, if only because they have hardly played. Sri Lanka will be formidable hurdles to overcome. But as Karachi's National Stadium finally buzzed into life and officials, press, groundstaff busily went about pre-match rituals, thoughts of a result weren't so important. The game is back and it is on.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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