A crunch match for Pakistan

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AN OBSTACLE? NO WAY! The way Mahendra Singh Dhoni is batting, it would seem that no total is big enough for Team India to overhaul. - PHOTO: S. SUBRAMANIUM
AN OBSTACLE? NO WAY! The way Mahendra Singh Dhoni is batting, it would seem that no total is big enough for Team India to overhaul. - PHOTO: S. SUBRAMANIUM

S. Dinakar

Zaheer might replace AgarkarWicket expected to provide some assistance for the pacemenSami could get a look-in

Multan: These are pleasant late winter days in this ancient town known for heat and dust, but the cricketing climate has hotted up in Multan. The five-match Hutch ODI series is tantalisingly poised with India leading 2-1.

The tale of Multan, built and rebuilt and carrying the footprints of Alexander the Great, is also one of survival. The fourth game of this engrossing duel will test the resilience of both teams.

The Indian nerves will be stretched as the side attempts to close out the series. For the host, Thursday's game marks a severe test of character in a must-win situation.

With the `end game' in proximity, much intensity was on view during the training sessions of the teams.

Multan's own son Inzamam-ul-Haq makes delightful music when he meets the leather with the willow.

Injury front even

The Sultan of Multan will be without his two key injured protagonists, Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi, as well as paceman Umar Gul who was ruled out with a back strain. Rao Iftekar Anjum has joined the side.

Psychologically, both sides are conceding little. It was not surprising when India captain Rahul Dravid said "We are also without Sehwag and Harbhajan and they have been critical to our success." Dravid word's read things are even on the injury front.

Paceman Ajit Agarkar's sore back is another fitness concern for India. The Mumbaikar bowled without apparent discomfort during practice but left-armer Zaheer Khan might take Agarkar's place in the eleven. Either Suresh Raina or Ramesh Powar could be the Super-Sub.

Intriguing possibilities

The surface for the game holds intriguing possibilities. There is a thin layer of white grass on a pitch that has been `heavy rolled' and mowed. This could again be a hard wicket providing a measure of assistance for the pacemen. But then, the track does not appear to have been watered much, which indicates that there will be less moisture content.

Inzamam felt a score of 270 would be a challenging total on this wicket. Both skippers agreed that the `toss' would not be too much of a factor in a day/night game with an 11 a.m. start. Dravid said unless there was a cloud cover or the conditions were foggy, there might not be too much assistance for the pacemen early on. The Indian captain added that the pacemen moved the ball around under the lights in Lahore because of the evening dew.

The Indian captain dwelt on the importance of `sticking to a plan' whether batting first or chasing. The likes of Yuvraj Singh, who got elevated to the post of vice-captain, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Irfan Pathan have contributed immensely while, Sachin Tendulkar, as Dravid acknowledged, has been a major factor in the top-order performing well. If need be, Tendulkar, Yuvraj and Raina will have to fill in for the fifth bowler, he said.

The Chappell-Dravid duo is also focussing on `building a side where the roles are inter-changeable.' Dravid spoke about "the need of the younger players to experience tough situations in different positions." Someone like Dhoni has blossomed.

Ace in the pack

The wicket-keeper batsman is a bundle of energy all right. He sent down wholehearted medium pace at the Indian nets, and even earned a nod of approval from Chappell when he bowled a sharp off-cutter.

Dhoni, like Yuvraj, is an ace in the Indian pack. Inzamam said "Dhoni played an extraordinary innings in Lahore."

But Inzamam would surely admit that Pakistan fielded poorly. The Indians dropped catches, but the side's ground-fielding in the circle was razor-sharp. In a tight game, the fielding could make the difference.

Pakistan's left-handed opener Imran Farhat is expected to partner Salman Butt with Kamran Akmal dropping down. Inzamam defended his batting order and the decision not to send Younis Khan at No 3.

Fiery paceman Mohammed Sami could get a look-in. The Pakistan captain backed inconsistent paceman Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, but the major threat for India will emerge from Mohammed Asif.

The teams (from): India: Rahul Dravid (captain), Yuvraj Singh (vice-captain), Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Mohammad Kaif, M.S. Dhoni, Suresh Raina, Irfan Pathan, R.P. Singh, S. Sreesanth, Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, Ramesh Powar and Murali Kartik. Coach: Greg Chappell.

Pakistan: Inzamam-ul-Haq (captain), Younis Khan (vice-captain), Salman Butt, Imran Farhat, Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Yousuf, Kamran Akmal, Abdul Razzaq, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Mohammad Sami, Mohammad Asif, Rao Iftekar Anjum, Yasir Arafat, Arshad Khan and Faisal Iqbal. Coach: Bob Woolmer.

Umpires: Steve Bucknor and Asad Rauf; Third umpire: Zameer Haider; Match Referee: Chris Broad.

Hours of play: 11 a.m. (local time) to 2.30 p.m., 3.15 p.m. till end of match.

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