Pakistan in need of another bounce-back

For Pakistan, this is not so much do-or-die as do-or-don't be around. The equation is now simple: beat India, hope Sri Lanka beat India, beat Bangladesh, all the while with an eye on a better net run-rate. It will not solve the ills currently plaguing Pakistan cricket, but it will provide temporary, valuable respite. Fail this and change, significant change, is a fait accompli.

Geoff Lawson's tiff with the media has done nothing to help his position and even Shoaib Malik's most ardent supporters are said to be running out of patience. The Asia Cup needs this intensity and pressure, this bigness and uncertainty. At stake, when Pakistan step on to the field, is everything.

Traditionally, near enough this juncture after two thumping defeats, it is said of Pakistan teams that they are at their most dangerous; that form means nothing. The team is unbound, unsettled and lacks coherence. Stars are not performing; the captain is under pressure, the coach more so.

Circumstances are ideal really for another of Pakistan's inexplicable bounce-backs. The only question is whether this side can do it as have so many Pakistan sides in the past. The recent Kitply Cup final provides hope, as does the Champions Trophy opener against Sri Lanka in 2006, even though only five from that XI are here.

But that is all you can cling on to, for on paper and form India are a stronger side. They bat almost till they are out and have a strong attack, even if they are missing Harbhajan Singh's economy in the middle overs and have been shoddy with their catching.

Unusually, Pakistan have already named a XI, perhaps to clear the doubt over captain Shoaib Malik. Early speculation today was that he wasn't in, fuelled by vice-captain Misbah-ul-Haq's appearance in front of the press at practice. Dehydration has been the problem but Malik eventually arrived, drip attached, and after a short discussion with selectors, it was announced he is fit to play.

Into this cauldron Pakistan hand a debut to Saeed Ajmal, the offspinner, and a second ODI to Abdur Rauf, that persevering domestic champion forever on the fringes of selection. Unlike Mansoor Amjad and Wahab Riaz, Shahid Afridi, on the verge of being dropped after the Sri Lanka game, retains his place. The decision to keep Afridi is one last punt, part-hope, part-hunch, after selectors had decided to drop him. "I have a feeling, nothing technical, that he just might do something tomorrow," admitted one.

Careers might be made, some might end and the heat is on. "As a professional cricketer, no game is easy," Misbah said. "You are up against the toughest sides, but if you perform in these games, then you can really make a name for yourself. The team's focus is solely on comprehensively winning both games. We are not worried about other results. We have to, we must, win tomorrow's match."

Not that Pakistan are the only ones under the cosh. An Indian loss, with a game the very next day against Sri Lanka, means tomorrow is also important for them, even if you can't see Mahendra Singh Dhoni fretting about it as much as Malik. "India will be under some pressure as well," Misbah said. "They have two very important matches against tough sides too. Comparatively you can say our team is under less pressure."

Cute kidology it may be, but even Misbah knows that a loss on Wednesday could conceivably push him in to the hot seat currently occupied by Malik. He's not even been back in the side for a year but such is the way it works in Pakistan. At least he recognises the dangers of writing Pakistan off. "Winning or losing is part of game," he ended. "We have lost our last two games, but remember we won the Kitply final before that." All of Pakistan will be clinging on to that memory come the game.