Do-or-die battle for Pakistan

COLOMBO, JULY 24. It was the day after Pakistan's dismal loss to Sri Lanka in its opening second-phase clash. At 11 in the morning, skipper Inzamam-ul-Haq jogged all alone by the Galle Face beach, unmindful of the harsh sun, or for that matter, the passers-by who stopped to look at him curiously.

The defeat at the hands of the host had put his side in a tricky situation. For the men in green will now have to beat India, preferably with a bonus point, in a day/night contest at the R. Premadasa Stadium on Sunday, to stay on course for a place in the final of the Indian Oil-Asia Cup 2004.

Clothed in a tracksuit, the `Mauler from Multan' looked pensive, as he worked the stretch of the shore opposite the Taj Samudra. Captaincy can be a lonely business. But it is also a loaded one in Pakistan cricket. And that's the difficult part.

The Test and ODI series loss to India at home in March had left his boys a fragile lot, psychologically. And now, his side will have to survive another pressure cooker situation — which is what an India-Pakistan cricket clash is always. On the other hand, for India, as much as victory in this outing is important, it cannot be exactly termed as a do-or-die battle for Sourav Ganguly and Co.

Lanka in lead

The four-team second stage is still open for the Big Three. Sri Lanka, with victories (including bonus points) over Pakistan and Bangladesh, is leading the table with 12 points. India has six (including bonus) from the win over Bangladesh with matches against Pakistan and Sri Lanka (July 27) remaining, while Pakistan has nil with two matches to go.

Defeat against India will put Pakistan out of the race. But if Pakistan wins its remaining two matches with bonus points — improbable that it may seem — and India defeats Sri Lanka with a bonus point, then all three teams are even on 12. In which case, the Net Run Rate will determine the finalists. Pakistan would have a slight advantage in that its match against Bangladesh (July 29) is the concluding contest of the second phase and the defending champion can toy with the minnow in a manner that would see it through to the title-clash.

For Sourav Ganguly & Co., a win here would put an end to all speculations. But if it loses, it should, at any cost, not concede the bonus point (granted if victory is achieved with a run rate of 1.25 times more than the opponent). For, India would then have to defeat Sri Lanka with a bonus point, to go one point ahead of Pakistan and take on the host in the final. But if it fails to garner the bonus point against Sri Lanka in this situation, it would end up finishing on par (11 points) with Pakistan and lose out on head-to-head.

Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer said that his team wasn't tested in the group phase and that caused the batting debacle against Sri Lanka. "The top five batsmen were among runs against Hong Kong and Bangladesh. The defeat was self-inflicted."

The Pakistan speedsters — Shoaib Akhtar, Md. Sami and Shabbir Ahmed — bowled with fire against the host, which was made to sweat to overhaul the target of 123.

"It's important for us to gain early inroads into the Indian batting line-up. We need to expose the middle-order to the shiny white ball. Batting under lights is possible; it shouldn't be a problem," said Woolmer.

Lethal force

In spite of all its problems, Pakistan has the ability to bring back into its game that fierce commitment that always makes it an unpredictable but lethal force in the international arena.

The loss to Sri Lanka in a group match was a jolt for India, but it came at the right time in that it was inconsequential.

In the match against Bangladesh, Ganguly's boys looked every bit the cohesive unit it was during that superb run last year.

V.V.S. Laxman missed practice on Saturday afternoon. He was hit by a Zaheer Khan delivery the previous day. "No fear. He's fit and will play," said Ganguly.

While welcoming Zaheer's return to fitness, the skipper, however, didn't commit whether the left-arm paceman would play in the crucial clash. "We'll see how he bowls in the nets. Nehra bowled very well the other day."

With a century against UAE and a brilliant 82 against Sri Lanka, Rahul Dravid is in mind-boggling form. Ganguly looked dominant in his half-century against Bangladesh. The match also saw Sachin Tendulkar regain his touch.

Left-arm seamer Irfan Pathan has been bowling beautifully though his new-ball partner L. Balaji hasn't been at his best on this tour. Leg-spinner Anil Kumble has been accurate as ever while off-spinner Harbhajan Singh bowled impressively during his `comeback-after-injury' match against Bangladesh. It will be a toss up between the two for the lone spinner's spot, considering that Ganguly usually goes in with three speedsters.

The Bengal cricketer agreed that India-Pakistan clashes are of high pressure and intensity. "Millions of people in both countries follow it. We've played against each other often lately. But then, this is the clash that people watch."

Ganguly dismissed the view that the recent away series win over Pakistan gives India an edge. "The past is immaterial. I don't believe in tags. It's a new day. Whoever plays well will win." Typical of Ganguly.

The teams:

India (from): S. Ganguly (capt.), V. Sehwag, R. Dravid (vice-capt.), V.V.S. Laxman, S. Tendulkar, Yuvraj Singh, Md. Kaif, Parthiv Patel, A. Kumble, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, A. Nehra, I. Pathan and L. Balaji.

Pakistan (from): I. Haq (capt), Y. Youhana (vice-capt.), I. Farhat, I. Nazir, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik, A. Razzaq, Moin Khan, Md. Sami, Shoaib Akhtar, Shabbir Ahmed, D. Kaneria, R. Navdul Hassan and Y. Hameed.

Umpires: B. Bowden (NZ) and B. Doctrove (WI). Third umpire: M.G. Silva (SL). Match referee: M. Proctor (SA).

Hours of play (IST): 2.15 p.m. to 5.45 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. till close.

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