S. Dinakar

Karachi: There is grass on the National Stadium pitch in Karachi. Whether the surface will sport a coating of green when the third Allianz Test begins here on Sunday is a pertinent question.

And much of the home team's strategy would revolve on the fitness of captain Inzamam-ul-Haq and pace spearhead Shoaib Akhtar.

Crucially for Pakistan, Akhtar bowled at the Pakistan nets on Friday, and did so without discomfort. He is keen and eager to play in what could be the decisive match.

While it would be premature to predict that he is a certainty for the final Test, the Pakistan pace spearhead cannot be ruled out either. Injuries have their own way of playing out.

Akhtar has endured a painful ankle since the series against England and he could give it a fling here. He has the pace and thrust to make inroads if the conditions suit him.

Karachi is a buzzing, lively port city and the moisture content in the air might assist swing.

The weather is warm and the sun shines bright in these parts. This suggests that if the pitch develops cracks, these could widen as the contest progresses bringing the spinners into play as well.

The Inzamam factor

Pakistan will need Inzamam's experience and technical competence with the bat and his guiding hand as the skipper in the crunch game. Psychologically, having Inzamam as captain and a leader will be a huge boost for the host.

The Pakistan skipper did not bat at the nets, but sources close to the side indicated that he was recovering gradually.

If Inzamam and Akhtar play, then Pakistan could opt for a green-top. Otherwise, we could have another pitch of brownish hue.

If the grass stays on the surface, then bowling first will be a huge advantage. There is bound to be early assistance for the pacemen. As the sun beats down on the surface and the colour of the grass turns brown, the pitch could gradually lose its sting.

The fielding team thus has the opportunity to bowl when the pitch is at its liveliest, build a match-winning lead when the conditions are at their best for batting and then have a chance to bowl when there could be some assistance for the spinners.

Toss crucial

In conditions like this, much would hinge on the toss. If we travel back to the 2004 series and to the two green-tops, in Lahore and Rawalpindi, the side bowling first romped home. Pakistan levelled the series in Lahore, while India achieved a historic series triumph in Rawalpindi.

The kind of wicket provided will also have an impact on the composition of the side. If it is a green-top, the Indians could omit off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, for whom this has been a rather ordinary series.

Then the side could opt for the 3-1 formula (three pacemen and a spinner) and enter the contest with six specialist batsmen. This also brings Sourav Ganguly back into the picture.

One of the reasons India opted for five bowlers in Faisalabad, as coach Greg Chappell revealed, was because the team-management did not want to go into the last Test with a tired four-man attack. There was a feeling, after having a look at the Faisalabad wicket, that there would be plenty of work for the bowlers in the second Test. It was felt that the team would be better off if five bowlers shared the load than four. While that ploy was essentially an attacking option, it was not without logic or foresight.

There is also a possibility that the Pakistani strategy could have been to tire the Indians mentally in the first two Tests and then ambush the visitors in Karachi.

The Indians are seeking to keep themselves mentally as fresh as possible for the third Test, following five gruelling days of cricket in Faisalabad. The side had received a two- day off from practice here.

Much emphasis has been on preparing for the Test mentally. And this is also distinctly Greg Chappell territory.

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