One man can seldom make the difference in a three-match Test series, especially one who hasn’t always lived up to lofty expectations. But Shoaib Malik, Pakistan’s captain, was in little doubt as to where this series against India would be won and lost. Shoaib Akhtar is effectively on probation after his antics in the build-up to the Twenty20 World Cup, but Malik believes that he could well be the X-factor that decides this most keenly fought of cricket contests.
“If we’re to win the series, Shoaib Akhtar and Danish Kaneria will have a vital role to play,” said Malik on the eve of the game. “Shoaib’s fitness level is good. He’s our trump card for sure.”
Malik disputed the assertion that Shoaib hadn’t really found his rhythm in the one-day series. “He was in rhythm,” he said. “He was consistently bowling at 150-plus [kph]. It was I who asked him to bowl with a shorter run-up because we had some problems with time [slow over-rate].”
The allegedly slow nature of the Feroz Shah Kotla pitch could draw the sting out of Pakistani pace, but Malik wasn’t too perturbed by the 22 yards. “Whatever cricket we’ve seen recently, even on spinning tracks, the fast bowlers have done well,” he said. “So we’re not too worried.”
Umar Gul is battling a back strain and is rated doubtful for the Test. That should mean a Test debut for Sohail Tanvir, though it’s likely to be Mohammad Sami who shares the new ball with Shoaib. Despite the failure of the four-bowler plan against South Africa, Pakistan are likely to resist the temptation to play Abdur Rehman.
Malik was confident that Kaneria could match the Indian spinners. “I wouldn’t say either team has the edge in the spin department,” he said. “Anil [Kumble], Harbhajan [Singh] and Murali Kartik are all very good spinners. We have Danish. But our main strength is our pace bowling.”
India’s pace department has been considerably weakened by the injuries to Sreesanth and RP Singh, but Malik was taking nothing for granted in the build-up to the game. “They have called up Munaf Patel, and they already have Zaheer Khan in the team,” he said. “Their spin attack is strong. There might be some change in their plans but it’s still a strong attack.”
Ever since Saeed Anwar retired from the international arena, Pakistan have struggled to find a semblance of consistency at the top of the order, but Malik stressed that there would be no experimentation before the first game of the series. “We have two openers [Salman Butt and Yasir Hameed] in the squad and both of them will play.”
Following the reverse in the one-day series, much had been said, especially back home in Pakistan, about the lack of spirit within the team and the captain’s inability to rouse his men. Malik scoffed at such suggestions. “Things have been said because we lost,” he said brusquely. “If we had won, none of these issues would have been raised.”
Though it counted for little in the larger scheme of things, he was happy at the manner in which Pakistan had approached the dead rubber in Jaipur. “We’d already lost the series, but the way we played was very encouraging,” he said. “Whenever you win, it’s good for the morale.”
For Malik, it will be his second bilateral series as captain, while his counterpart, Anil Kumble, leads India in a Test for the first time at the age of 37. “Each day you learn something when you play cricket,” said Malik when asked whether the difference in experience would be a factor. “He has so much experience that I don’t think it’ll make a big difference to him.”
Pakistan haven’t lost a Test series on Indian soil since Asif Iqbal’s team lost 2-0 in 1979. Malik called that little statistic a powerful source of motivation, and his underdog side appear quietly confident of upsetting the odds yet again in a contest that means just a little bit more than any other.
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