Fast bowlers will hold the key for Pakistan in the forthcoming Indo-Pak series which will mark the return of the most competitive and festive cricket. The Ashes are also much awaited but no contest can match the battle between the sub-continental neighbours.
Most of the Pakistani and Indian players are good friends. But the charged atmosphere has its effect on the players. Some tend to raise their levels like never before and provide cherished memories. The incredible run-feast at Karachi set the tone for the last series. The triple hundreds of Virender Sehwag and double by Rahul Dravid are like badges of honour.
When Australia visited India at the start of the season, their fast bowling trio of Jason Gillespie, Glenn McGrath and Michael Kasprowicz got 43 wickets (63 per cent) while Michael Clarke, Nathan Hauritz and Shane Warne had 25 scalps (37 per cent). In the last series between India and Pakistan, 21 wickets (66 per cent) of the visitors were claimed by Pakistani pacemen.
Indeed, fast bowlers will hold the key for Pakistan. Mohammad Sami is a match-winner but he needs a show of confidence from the captain and the Pakistan Cricket Board. Waqar Younis as coach will start with an advantage since he has seen all these bowlers from close quarters in Australia.
Pakistan have left behind Abdul Rauf, Shahid Nazir and Mohammad Irshad from the touring party and they are all worthy youngsters. I would have preferred Mohammad Irshad as he is genuinely quick and with Sami his pace could have been disconcerting.
Pacemen of course will be assisted by the SG balls, to be used in the series instead of the Kookaburra ones. The SG balls are quite hard with a high-up seam. The first 20 overs with a SG ball by genuine fast bowlers can daunt any batting line-up in the world. It has good graze resistance, hardness and is this able to retain its shape longer. It also helps good spinners. It tends to reverse swing a lot and batting line-ups can suffer sudden collapses.
If Sami and company can create havoc in the Indian line-up, high-action leg-spinner Danish Kaneria with the harder ball can play the key role with quick wickets at critical stages. Arshad Khan will be a very good spinning foil. Pakistan unfortunately does not have a quality left-arm spinner and it could tell in the series as you need bowlers to exploit the roughs on the fourth and fifth day.
Shahid Afridi was a spinner reborn in Australia. He is an automatic starter in the one-dayers but if Pakistan find an under-prepared wicket in a Test, Afridi should be an automatic choice. He can also score quickly which could be telling in a low-scoring encounter.
Pakistan need a left-right hand batting combination at the top of the order to counter the left-arm pacemen of India. Thus, Yasir Hameed and Salman Butt should be the first choice openers. Both are attacking players and that is how modern Test openers approach their cricket. Hameed needs confidence from the team management. He is a very good, aggressive player and well-suited to all conditions. Percentage of stroke play would come with time.
Younis Khan is one of the bravest players in the team and has a record better than Mohammad Kaif or Yuvraj Singh. He should come at one-down. Number four and five are the preserves of Inzamam-ul Haq and Yousuf Youhana. At their best, they easily match the brilliance of Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar.
Asim Kamal should make the number six spot his own. Technically speaking, Asim is one of the best going around. Kamran Akmal has been preferred ahead of Moin Khan and it could be a make-or-break tour for him. A wicketkeeper will find the spotlight particularly harsh -- a bad performance and it is not the selectors but the fans who will decide his fate.
Arshad, at number eight, can bat well and his off-spinners could trouble the four left-handers in the Indian line-up. Sami is developing as a reliable number nine. Although Naved-ul Hasan Rana played with infectious zeal in Australia, he is more suited to one-dayers like my good friend Shoaib Malik. I feel too many all-rounders in the Tests is not a good policy.
Coming to Shoaib Akhtar and his pull-out, controversy could have played a part in it. Why does it always involve Shoaib Akhtar? It is because the Pakistan team management for the last two years has been weak. One cannot be strict and lax at the same time. Management too needs to be consistent. Shoaib is a natural gem and it all depends on the leader how and when to use him. Most of the times he was misused during the Australian summer.
Shoaib and Inzamam need to sit together and sort out their differences. It cannot be all that distinctive and sharp. Both of them want to do well for Pakistan cricket. They are the flagships of Pakistan's batting and bowling. They are keys to overall strategy and have a role to play in grooming youngsters. They might have different views about taking Pakistan cricket forward. Honest dialogue between them, carefully facilitated by PCB, can bring about a common vision. If both play together with pride and passion, Pakistan can beat any team in the world.
I feel both sides have equal chance of winning the Test and one-day series. The team which shows better nerves and plays as a well-knit unit will come out with flying colours. It will indeed be a close encounter.