GWALIOR ON Thursday afternoon is when it all can start for Shoaib Malik's men. Or all end. They can either begin a dramatic, now largely unexpected turnaround or cave in again and gift the series to India.
For some time, despite their T20 final showing, Pakistan have seemed more than usually erratic and off tangent. Here, we take a look at nine areas of concern for Pakistan and their one big plus.
1) Missing Asif
Md Asif has been Pakistan's best bowler by far for the last year or so. His ability to swing the ball both ways in most conditions and to take wickets up front has not only prevented the opposition from getting off to a good start but has also restricted them to a manageable total. Injured and missing, he is a huge loss here.
2) Shoaib in the dock
In Asif's absence, Pakistan is relying very heavily on Shoaib Akhtar to make early inroads. At his best, Shoaib a match-winner, but he's come back to international cricket after a long break. He might be fit enough to do all the drills in training but is looking rusty and something seems off. The prime example of this was that one over in Mohali where he started with his normal run-up and bowled wides, came off a shorter run-up and still bowled wides. He just couldn't get it right.
3) Lack of spinners
This is an area where India is miles ahead of Pakistan, whose spin department is almost non-existent. If Afridi is any team's first (or main) spin bowling option, there's a serious problem there. This is not to undermine Afridi's ability but even at his best, he's a more finely honed version of someone like a Yuvraj, Sehwag or Sachin. To do well in the subcontinent, a team must have quality spinners, as most batsmen here are good players of spin bowling. This is hurting Pakistan.
4) Over dependence on Afridi
Again, Afridi will always be remembered as someone who had immense potential but hasn't lived up to it. He was an impact player when he first came to the scene but consistently inconsistent. He is brilliant one day and lacklustre in the next few games. That was the reason he lost his place in the side. With T20 cricket, a format that suits his game and temperament perfectly, he has once again become the most important player in the Pakistan side. But in a 50 over game, he can have only so much impact. Pakistan is banking heavily on him to either finish the game off with a flurry of strokes or give them a blistering start. They also expect him to bowl his 10 overs in every game. It's a bit much.
5) No back up for Younis and Yousuf
Pakistan's batting revolves around Younis and Yusuf. They've been consistent but remove them and no opposition bowler will worry about taking on the rest. Pakistan haven't found a solution to their opening woes, Malik and Misbah haven't graduated to the next level, putting too much pressure on the two Ys. Afridi can finish but he isn't in the same category as Yuvraj or Dhoni, who are proper batsmen who have mastered the art of finishing games.
6) Akmal's dismal showing
Kamral Akmal has been struggling a while, but Pakistan have persisted with him, perhaps because of his batting or the lack of options. He has dropped regulation catches that have hurt Pakistan badly, especially at the start of the innings. His poor form behind the wickets has affected his form in front of the stumps too. The keeper is also generally the livewire on the field and when he's having a horrid time; it's difficult to pick the team up during bad phases.
7) Poor fielding unit
They are probably the only team in the world that can make India's fielding look good. Need we say more?
8) Malik out of his depth
It's often said that a captain is only as good as his team. That's probably true to an extent but a good captain will generally manage to get something extra from his players. Though it's early days, he's looked out of his depth, tentative and tactically unsound. To be fair, he doesn't have the same resources as Dhoni but his own form with the bat has dipped too. This is affecting him and hurting his team. The team needs Malik, the batsman, as much as Shoaib, the skipper.
9) Lack of a system
Pakistan traditionally have been unpredictable, living off individual super-performers. This doesn't seem to have changed. Now though, with other teams progressing and being more systematic, Pakistan's erratic showing is showing them up badly more often. Like India, they had abysmal World Cup, but unlike India, they haven't shown a steady improvement. While they've done well in T20 cricket, that seems to have swept their other problems under the carpet. Except in the pace department, they lack a feeder-line, as evinced by an inability to find a decent wicket-keeper, a proper opening combine, quality spinners etc.