Shoaib hogs spotlight as old foes renew duel
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Rejuvenated pace bowler Shoaib Akhtar holds the key to either team's success as arch-rivals India and Pakistan begin their third Test series in two years from Friday.
The 31-year-old spearheaded Pakistan's brilliant 2-0 Test victory over Ashes-conquering England at home last month with 17 wickets in three matches.
Akhtar is expected to deliver once more against the old foes who boast a strong batting line-up starring captain Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, Venkatsai Laxman and Virender Sehwag.
When India won their maiden series on Pakistan soil in 2004 on their first full tour across the border in 15 years, Akhtar's lacklustre form contributed to the home team's downfall.
He was not selected for last year's tour of India where Pakistan drew the Test series 1-1 and convincingly won the one-dayers 4-2.
"The Indians will find a different bowler in Shoaib this time," said Pakistan captain Inzamam-ul-Haq. "He is fit, committed and raring to go."
Indian captain Rahul Dravid, hoping to win his first overseas series as captain after replacing Sourav Ganguly, played down the Akhtar effect.
"We do not plan for just one bowler because he is not the only one who will bowl at us," he said. "Shoaib is a key man for them but we are prepared for him as well as the others."
Pakistan are confident the cold weather in this eastern city and a hard wicket at the Gaddafi stadium will be ideally suited for the pace attack of Akhtar, Rana Naved and Mohammad Sami and leg-spinner Danish Kaneria.
While Pakistan defeated England, India are coming off a successful home season where they thrashed Sri Lanka 2-0 in the Tests and 6-1 in the one-dayers and drew a limited-overs series with South Africa 2-2.
Dravid, however, scoffed at Inzamam's prediction that the Indians will start as favourites because of their current form and experience.
"Both teams have played well over the last few months, but that will count for nothing when the series starts on Friday," the Indian captain said.
"Both start from scratch and whoever plays better over 15 days of the series will emerge successful.
"If I have to predict anything, it is that it will be a well fought series which fans on both sides will enjoy."
India are likely to field both spinners, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, alongwith two seamers on a brownish wicket that could take turn later in the match.
The touring management are still undecided whether to play Ganguly at the expense of the in-form Yuvraj Singh at number six.
Pakistan's batting may not appear as formidable on paper, but is effective enough to counter India's threat.
The supremely talented Inzamam, a veteran of 104 Tests with 8,051 runs and 24 centuries behind him, leads the batting after scoring 431 runs in three matches against England.
Rival coaches Greg Chappell of India and Bob Woolmer of Pakistan, who faced each other on the field in numerous Ashes contests, are as excited about the series as the players.
"I can't wait to see the intensity of an India-Pakistan contest from the inside," said Chappell, the former Australian great who took over as India coach in June.
"It should be a great one," said Englishman Woolmer. "It usually is when India and Pakistan are involved."
The second Test will be played in Faisalabad from January 21-25 and the third in Karachi from January 29-February 2.