Gripping series reaches climax

While there are greater events at hand with the arrival of Pervez Musharraf, a more basic issue is currently afoot. It involves more primal things like victory, defeat and crowing rights until these teams meet again. Incidentally, like the Test series, the one-dayers too will be decided on the very last day but it is India who are playing catch-up here. What was once a settled bowling line-up suddenly appears under-strength while Pakistan's batsmen and Naved-ul-Hasan have grown a foot taller in the last month.

And so it is left to this last game, which will be played on a new pitch in a stadium still under construction. No one, least of all the Society for Safe Structures, which approached the Delhi High Court to cancel the match, knows what to expect. Rahul Dravid said as much in the press conference. It is a matter of such imponderables for India. Besides the pitch and the deficit, there is Shahid Afridi - richer by 500,000 rupees [US$8500 approx] after the president awarded him for his breathtaking century - who could bludgeon or could also be out first ball. Dravid's combination of bowlers is as likely to influence the game, but this too is an imponderable. So what does that leave him with? Not for the first time this series, his batsmen. While the top six are regulars, Dravid seemed impressed with Dinesh Mongia's cameo, so he too might participate at Delhi.

Inzamam-ul-Haq's dilemma is one of plenty. Mohammad Sami has shown signs of good recovery though a late-evening fitness test will decide his participation. His possible return will help add dash to combine with Naved's subtleties. Then there is Danish Kaneria who, while sucessful in Tests, tends to struggle in one-dayers. Considering that the worst possible outcome is a drawn series, Inzamam could risk Kaneria although Arshad Khan's control may help him keep his place. Even then, he and Dravid chose to leave thoughts on the team till later, after they had seen the pitch. But it is the prospect of an outright series win that could inspire Pakistan to one last hard push on this arduous tour. It would keep up their hold over India in ODIs, something that they briefly relinquished last year.

For India, the series has been disappointing. Leads in both formats have been cut down due to sheer Pakistani perseverance and it has been a steep fall from last year's heady days in Pakistan. And this Pakistan team have managed this comeback without a full-strength bowling attack.

Then there is the curious case of Sourav Ganguly, about whom official and unofficial news clash often these days. There were whispers of his inclusion for Delhi, but the Indian board has categorically announced that he will not play. Dravid has been in a similar situation in the past - he took over the captaincy at Nagpur in the third Test against Australia, lost heavily before bouncing back to win at Mumbai - and a series-levelling victory here is surely not beyond India.

It is perverse to think that only a month ago, it was Inzamam whose brand of leadership was questioned, his methods termed lazy, his demeanour on the field labelled uninspiring. His success has answered the most awkward of questions. Under him, Pakistan have now won seven of their last nine ODIs against India. If it isn't the irresistable force of Afridi, it is the calm of Salman Butt or Inzamam's mastery or Naved's incisive opening spells that have wrested games from their grasp.

From a sporting perspective, it's a must-win for India. But there will be even bigger matters at stake. Over the next 24 hours, two heads of state will meet and attempt to further smoothen the relationship between the two nations. Therein lies the irony: a sport that has often been a victim of many a diplomatic impasse has now provided the setting for a meltdown.

Pakistan (probable)
1 Salman Butt, 2 Shahid Afridi, 3 Shoaib Malik, 4 Yousuf Youhana, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Abdul Razzaq, 7 Younis Khan, 8 Kamran Akmal (wk), 9 Naved-ul-Hasan, 10 Rao Iftikhar Anjum, 11 Arshad Khan.

India (probable)
1 Virender Sehwag, 2 Sachin Tendulkar, 3 Mahendra Singh Dhoni (wk), 4 Rahul Dravid (capt), 5 Yuvraj Singh, 6 Mohammad Kaif, 7 Dinesh Mongia, 8 Harbhajan Singh, 9 Zaheer Khan, 10 Ashish Nehra, 11 Anil Kumble.

Rahul Bhatia is on the staff of Cricinfo.