Taking guard at the LAHORE SEAM TRAP

S. DINAKAR

Greats of Indian cricket: Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble.-MURALI KUMAR

PAKISTAN is on a high having ambushed the Ashes-winning England at home. And India too is on cloud nine after brushing aside Sri Lanka. It can be argued that Pakistan's achievement is greater since England had upstaged archrival Australia in a titanic series. But then, India, marshalled ably by the Greg Chappell-Rahul Dravid combine, has climbed to its all-time high second place in the ICC Test rankings. It is a buzzing side with great cricketers — Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid and Anil Kumble — pulling their weight and exciting young talent in Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni tormenting the opposition. Past performances, however, will be pushed to the background when India and Pakistan meet in a three-Test series, which Chappell calls the greatest rivalry in cricket. While lessons are there to be learnt from the days gone by, `Now' will be the key word.

It certainly does not get bigger than India versus Pakistan; this is a duel fuelled by emotion and passion. Pakistan legend Imran Khan says that if he desired to test the quality of a young cricketer he would throw him into an India-Pakistan series. Two of India's greatest cricketers, Kapil Dev and Tendulkar, donned the India cap for the first time in Pakistan. In the cauldron, amidst excruciating tension, they held firm. No wonder, the two were bound for glory

This is a stage where Imran produced some of the finest fast bowling ever witnessed in Tests; swinging the ball with great precision at terrific speeds. Javed Miandad batted with a tigerish resolve and Mohinder Amarnath, against all odds, staged comeback after comeback This is a series that has thrown up some fascinating cricket and it should be no different on this occasion when the Test series gets underway on January 13. Ironically, it was Pakistan's 2-0 conquest of England that enabled India to rise to a slot only below Australia in the Test ratings. In the days ahead, Inzamam's men will be striving to displace India from its present position.

The Indians will have the burden of expectations on them. After all, they triumphed in both the Test and the ODI series in Pakistan the last time around. Their supporters will expect nothing less than an encore. And Dravid's men will have to zero in on the problem areas, and fast. Crucially, the top order needs to be in order before the first Test gets underway in Lahore. Leg-spinner Danish Kaneria remains a looming threat, but it is the face off between the Indian batting and the Pakistani pace attack that could prove decisive. Interestingly, the first of the three Tests will commence in Lahore. The pitch and the conditions generally favour the pacemen at the Gaddafi Stadium and Inzamam has already spoken about the host preparing green-tops for the Test series.

It is clear that Pakistan would strive to set the momentum in Lahore and in a three-Test series, an early lead could mean a significant advantage. This is precisely why the Indian opening combination, that was so off colour against Sri Lanka, has to ward off the new ball thrust from Shoaib Akhtar and Rana Naved.

Dravid is solid at No. 3 and the Indian middle-order has plenty of muscle. But if the middle-order is exposed early the Pakistanis could make major inroads. The opening batsmen have their task cut out. Sehwag and Gambhir have an opportunity to recover their form in the Ranji Trophy contest ahead of the first Test.

Vice-captain Sehwag is a certainty for the sheer psychological influence he can wield on the opposition and he does have good memories in Pakistan. India has a viable option for Gambhir in the elegant Wasim Jaffer who, if his run of scores in domestic cricket is any indication, is in the form of his life.

The Indians have selection worries ahead. Among them is fitting Sourav Ganguly in the XI. But then, finding a slot for him after the openers could be difficult. Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, and V. V. S. Laxman pick themselves, and Yuvraj Singh batted with authority during his two crucial 70 plus efforts against the Sri Lankans.

This is a tour where Ganguly could either fade away or respond to the situation with the streak of aggression that has been an unmistakable aspect of his cricket. Will he receive an opportunity? In Ganguly's favour is the fact that he could double up as a support seamer on pitches that are likely to assist his kind of bowling. In other words, he could add value to the side.

How India arrives at the right balance in its attack is another vexing question that demands an urgent answer. Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh form the foremost spin combination in present-day cricket, yet the think tank could be forced to break this partnership at some stage in the series if the nature of the surface demands an additional specialist paceman. It is a tough call that was often made during the Ganguly-Wright regime.

There were occasions when one of the two spinners made way for a third paceman. Interestingly, when India won that historic third Test in Rawalpindi, Pathan, Balaji and Nehra formed the pace attack and all three played their part in an epic Indian triumph. However, that was a tour that Harbhajan was forced to miss because of fitness concerns.

Shahid Afridi and Younis Khan... fierce competitors.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

A spot in the XI can be created for Ganguly or an extra paceman by getting someone like Dhoni to open in a short-term measure. But in a campaign where the selectors have chosen a third specialist opener as a member of the squad, it would send the wrong signals. When India needed to play both Yuvraj, who had produced a brilliant hundred in Lahore, and Ganguly, returning after an injury lay off to lead the side, in Rawalpindi the last time around, it was Parthiv Patel who was pushed up the order to face the new ball and he came up with a lion-hearted display.

But that decision caused considerable damage to Indian cricket. The progression of the Sehwag-Aakash Chopra partnership was halted and Chopra gradually drifted away from the Indian team. And Yuvraj, thrust into an opener's role in the subsequent home series against Australia, found himself dumped, unfairly at that, from the side and has since survived a major career crisis in Test cricket.

Chairman of selectors Kiran More more than hinted that Patel's batting ability, and his past knocks with the willow in Pakistan, clinched a spot for him as a wicket-keeper batsman. In any case, under the present circumstances, it is unlikely that Patel will be preferred to the exuberant Dhoni, at least in the beginning of the series.

One of the several gains for India from the series against Lanka was the manner in which the latter half of the line-up bailed the side out of difficult situations. Pathan, definite genuine all-rounder material, and the effervescent Dhoni, proved roadblocks to the opposition bowlers. Lower order resistance is the mark of a well-rounded side.

Pathan's workload will be heavy in Pakistan. He should form a viable partnership with Zaheer Khan, who has scripted a comeback after making a mess of the line-ups in the domestic competiton. Both are left-armers, but their contrasting methods might not allow the batsmen to settle into a rhythm. Pathan swings the ball, while Zaheer seams it around.

It would be difficult to pick Ajit Agarkar ahead of Zaheer in a Test. The Mumbaikar needs to develop the incoming delivery with the new ball, but can achieve reverse swing with the old ball. He could, when his body and mind are in harmony, take some load off Pathan and Zaheer, but the compulsions in the composition of the side may not allow him a place. The promising Rudra Pratap Singh is in chiefly as a cover for Pathan and Zaheer.

Pakistan has got the itinerary right this time. The host blundered in 2004 when it chose a barren, brown surface in Multan for the first Test. The move resulted in its pace attack being blunted. Sehwag got cracking and India, on a surface that suited its game-plan, achieved a maiden Test victory on Pakistan soil.

The toss will be a critical factor on pitches with some grass on them. It has been seen in the sub-continent that on such wickets there invariably is considerable assistance for the pacemen on the first day. As the contest wears on, the wicket acquires a brownish tinge and loses its sting.

Under the circumstances, bowling first is a huge advantage. When Pakistan fielded first in Lahore the last time — it was helped by an error of judgment by the then Indian stand-in captain Dravid — it could bowl India out for a total just around 300 and then build a sizable lead when the conditions were ideal for batting.

When the Indian pacemen received an opportunity to bowl first on a similar pitch in the decider at Rawalpindi, Pakistan was at the receiving end. While it is not impossible to conquer conditions — in this case a seaming first day pitch — the odds, particularly in the sub-continent, favour the fielding side. Pakistan will bring back memories for Sehwag; among them is a first triple hundred by an Indian in Tests. It would not be surprising if the sight of the Pakistani bowlers charging in gets Sehwag's competitive juices flowing.

Sehwag and India will be up against a more committed and focused Pakistan side.

Pakistan, indeed, has risen from the ashes of Rawalpindi, 2004. The side faced disintegration when Bob Woolmer took over as coach. The team had surrendered meekly in the final Test against India and raging questions about its character were being asked. While the Pakistani fans, in general, were appreciative of India's sweeping series victory, the lack of fight by the home team left many of them angry.

Inzamam was shepherding the side through a delicate, rebuilding phase but he needed support. The skipper's growing rift with strike bowler Shoaib Akhtar had given rise to rumour mongering. Tales of intrigue surrounded the Pakistani camp. Woolmer provided Inzamam the backing he required. The Englishman has this great knack of driving home his point forcefully without appearing to be offensive at any point. And he brought with him immense tactical knowledge and strategic skills.

In one of the early team meetings in Pakistan during India's historic campaign, the then coach John Wright had sought an answer to the question — `What is the best method to defeat Pakistan in its backyard?' from the various Indian cricketers. When his own turn to answer arrived, he said, "We can do it with discipline."

The wily Wright had hit the nail on the head. That Pakistan side was capable of whipping up periods of brilliance, but struggled to maintain consistency. Thundering strokes would be followed by shocking lapses of concentration, scorching deliveries would be followed by loose offerings. It did not take Woolmer long to identify the problem areas. The batsmen needed to consolidate on starts and this required concentration and application, besides the tightening of technique.

And the pacemen had to probe in the corridor outside the off-stump, without giving the batsmen width. Pakistan had firepower but it had to be channelled in the right direction. Cricket, Test cricket in particular, was about creating and maintaining pressure and this was only possible with bowling that was well-directed.

If the emphatic 2-0 victory over a powerful England side is any indication, the players have not just been focussed, but are jelling as a unit. Inzamam has been inspirational, while Mohammad Yousuf is an experienced batsman with ability and enterprise.

Yet, it is Pakistan's exciting all-round talent that makes it such a dynamic side. Kamran Akmal has kept and batted with flair and courage. Shahid Afridi, always influential against India, Shoaib Malik and Abdul Razzaq (fitness permitting) give their captain a variety of options. The Pakistanis, thus have depth in batting, and choices in bowling.

Then there is the reverse swing factor. Akhtar, bowling with greater control these days, Rana Naved and Mohammed Sami can all bend the old ball alarmingly and this suggests the Pakistani attack will keep coming back. If the Indian middle-order allows concentration levels to dip, these bowlers can run through the line-up.

The present bunch of Pakistan batsmen have displayed a certain weakness while facing quality leg-spin and Kumble, as in the past against Pakistan, could well emerge India's trump card.

Pakistan is an evolving side. There is more intensity and passion about Pakistan's cricket now and the side appears to be enjoying its cricket on the field. While capitulating against India in Pakistan, the team seemed flat and listless. But men like vice-captain Younis Khan and Afridi brought with them plenty of energy and enthusisiam on the field. All of a sudden this was a Pakistan side that could sting.

Gradually, the Pakistanis regrouped. Now they meet India on an equal footing. Some say it is Pakistan that is now the favourite. The days ahead will pass judgment on that thought.