All eyes on the brothers Akmal
A finger injury to Umar Akmal has lessened the chances of him replacing brother Kamran as Pakistan's wicketkeeper in the match against Zimbabwe on Monday in Pallekele. Though the injury to Umar's right index finger is not thought to be serious, it is unlikely now that the management will risk using him behind the stumps, allowing Kamran to probably retain his place in the XI despite his horror show in the 110-run loss to New Zealand on Tuesday.
Umar picked up the knock in fielding practice on Thursday at the Asgiriya stadium in Kandy, when he also kept wickets for a while. He sat out the practice session on Friday at the same venue, with his finger in strapping. According to manager Intikhab Alam, scans and an x-ray revealed no damage but no risks were taken in putting him through a practice session.
In the immediate aftermath of the New Zealand game, captain Shahid Afridi said they would consider using Umar as a wicketkeeper - a role he has filled in one ODI and three T20s - after Kamran fluffed three chances, including missing centurion Ross Taylor twice in three balls when he was on 0 and 8. Since then, despite criticism from all quarters, Pakistan have spoken of the need to back Kamran though they've stopped short of confirming his place in the XI.
The timing and consequence of Umar's injury is bound to raise eyebrows, especially in light of what happened after the infamous Sydney Test in early January 2010. Then, after another poor display behind the stumps from Kamran hurled the side towards a stunning Test defeat, Umar reportedly refused to play the next Test in Hobart if his brother was dropped. Eventually Kamran was replaced by Sarfraz Ahmed, despite telling the press repeatedly in the run that he would retain his place. The brothers were both subsequently fined by the PCB after an inquiry committee looked into the incident.
As Umar sat out, Pakistan underwent an extensive, three-hours plus training session at the Asgiriya in which they simulated match-play in a bid to give their struggling openers some valuable batting time in the middle. With Waqar Younis umpiring and coaching, Umar Gul and Shoaib Akhtar took the new ball and bowled by turn to Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammad Hafeez, who in four matches have put on 11, 28, 16 and 5; the pair has 93 runs between them and neither has gone past 32 individually.
They didn't particularly flourish today, being dismissed a few times each as Abdur Rehman and Abdul Razzaq also bowled. "We especially focused on the top order in today's practice because they got out early in the previous games and didn't get much practice with the new ball," Misbah-ul-Haq said. "They practised for 20 overs so that they get used to it and have their confidence back. It was a good thing keeping in mind the match situation which will be helpful."
Eventually all players in the squad were given a run-out in the same situations; Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq batted together, Misbah and Afridi, Misbah and Razzaq and then Kamran and Razzaq; Wahab Riaz and Saeed Ajmal, who have played only one match each, bowled in tandem, mixing with Junaid Khan and Afridi. Younis kept wickets while Kamran was batting.
Though the beginning of the session lacked the energy of previous practices - understandable perhaps given the nature of their loss - the contests soon picked up. "At the moment our focus is on our own game and we will try to restore our confidence levels which were shaken in the game against New Zealand," Misbah said. "We will try to line up all our basics in the game against Zimbabwe before and I have every hope that the side will bounce back."
All eyes, however, were on the brothers Akmal and particularly Kamran's keeping. He looked sharp and perky enough though there were a few fumbles as well. There was greater certainty with the bat, however, as he pulled and cut the faster bowlers to the boundary regularly while at the crease. Misbah sketched out the team line later, a growing show of support behind the wicketkeeper.
"It makes difference when you give such chances but then anyone can have a bad day, whether its keeper or anyone," Misbah said. "As a team we have to stay together. We're going to support each other, back each other because these are the players who commit mistakes and these are the same players who win you matches.
"It's mentally tough for him in this situation and he has faced such situations before too. Our full effort is to support him because wicketkeeper is a key member of the team and the way he is, the way he comes back in difficult situations and gives good performances I hope he will make a comeback and do well again."
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo