Ever since March 2004, when the two warring neighbours called a truce and the borders blurred, especially where cricket was concerned, India and Pakistan have played each other every year in a Test and ODI series.
In March-April 2004 in Pakistan, in March-April 2005 in India, in Jan-Feb 2006 in Pakistan and now, in November-December 2007, the bhai-bhai caravan moves back to India again.
There is some truth in the phrase “too much of a good thing”. And the BCCI and the PCB had both perhaps been a little careful about not killing the goose that lays the platinum eggs by tiring it out too much. There is also such a thing as cricket fatigue.
Having said that however, the upcoming series does assume some importance for all the right reasons, i.e, for matters primarily on the field and not off the field. There is neither a Karachi nor an Ahmedabad on the list of venues this time around, so that the little matter of doing a tit-for-tat is out of the way.
Teams in transition
Both teams are in the midst of a change and beginning, in different ways, a new era. In the case of Pakistan, with Inzamam-ul-Haq making a sentimental, ultimately graceful exit earlier this month, one incredibly intriguing chapter of Pakistan cricket has come to a close.
In Shoaib Malik, all of 25, they have a fairly young skipper, who will have a task at hand in bringing together a bunch of talented individuals more often famed for their mercurial temperaments and prima donna turns.
Malik, who has the advantage of vast match experience (unlike some other young skippers elsewhere) and the reputation of being a rare, cool head in a camp of fiery tempers, will be severely tested over the next couple of months.
Right off, he will have to put the criticism for making “strategic tactical errors” during the Tests against South Africa behind him. Then, he will have to tell his players to put what just happened behind them — and it won’t be easy.
Their shock capitulation to South Africa in the one-day series decider earlier this week, where, from needing 36 to win in the last 10 overs with six wickets in hand, they lost by 14 runs, is the stuff recurrent nightmares are made of.
Beyond the star acts
That stunning defeat quite overshadowed the return of Shoaib Akhtar from his 13-match ban with very impressive figures of 9-0-43-4. Malik, of course, will also have to handle the volatile Akhtar, an unenviable job for any man, leave alone a youngster just beginning to come to terms with perhaps the toughest crown in world cricket.
Akhtar, who has made moving from the sublime to the ridiculous a peculiar habit, will want to be in the forefront of whatever happens. Along with Shahid Afridi, he is Pakistan’s biggest crowd-puller and like the Pathan, he loves playing to the gallery. That can be his strength as well as his downfall, especially in a place like India, where the incredible expectations from fans often reflects on the performance of the players.
Akhtar heads up a pace-attack that is clearly Pakistan’s strength. Mohammad Asif is both incisive and increasingly dependable, both Umar Gul and Ifthikar Anjum have matured tremendously and probably benefited from breaks from international cricket (for different reasons), while in Sohail Tanvir, the southpaw with the wrong-foot action, on view in the T20 Cup, they just may have unearthed another Rawalpindi gem.
The Y factor
Where Pakistan might falter is in the unpredictability of their batting line-up, which depends heavily on the Y factor — the duo of Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan — in both Test and one-day cricket.
Both had half-centuries in Monday’s Lahore decider that Pakistan lost and Yousuf has been in incredible form through the one-day series against South Africa, with a ton and three fifties (at 71.50) in the five-match series. Yet, despite them, Pakistan still lost, which indicates vulnerability in the back-up area.
While Afridi and Malik can be dangerous in the one-day format, in the Tests, both the Ys, who South Africa skipper Graeme Smith called “Pakistan’s lifeline”, will need to stay constant through the one-dayers and most definitely, the Tests.
Sense and sensibility
As for the Indian players, they will have to go into the first two one-dayers distancing themselves from the brouhaha over the omission of Rahul Dravid from the squad.
There is a real danger of letting the rumours and opinions flying around getting to them and the sense of occasion overcoming the need of the moment. MS Dhoni will know that he will need to keep the calm head that he is reputed to have and get his largely young flock to stay focussed.
This is also the time that Dhoni will need to prove himself by solving India’s perennial problems like the fielding and the running between the wickets. He will also have a tough time with picking the XI (given all the talk) and balancing the senior-junior equation.
Post the T20 triumph, he has been given an extended public honeymoon despite the fact that India were never in with a chance against Australia. He has been called innovative, level headed, wise beyond his years, even inspirational.
Well, he has to prove it by consistently winning games that are more than three hours long. While Dhoni does bring a freshness of approach and a welcome new feel to the captaincy, he is possibly treading a fine line between being refreshing and showing a lack of grace (even making allowance for a comfort level with English). Ticking off a temperamental team-mate in a press conference makes for a great quote, but doing that repeatedly might create some internal friction.
Anyway, playing Pakistan at home is never easy and the next month will show whether he is able to take the brickbats (if there is an unfortunate need), with the same joyful spirit with which he has accepted the deserved accolades.
Past tense; future perfect?
Finally, a word of caution: While this India-Pakistan series is expected to be treated at par with series against other countries by the public, there is always that little frisson of something inexplicable when they meet.
Let’s just trust it is all quite peaceful. In fact, Pakistan begin their tour (against the Delhi Ranji team) at the same venue where their last tour of India ended.
Pakistan won that sixth one-dayer and the series comprehensively, but the Ferozeshah Kotla game was marred when the home crowd, incensed by India’s surrender, stopped play by throwing bottles and other objects on the field. Hopefully, this time around, April 17, 2005, will just be a bad memory.