Vantage point

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Lot More Lip

A lot more lip from Indians and Pakistanis has ensured that the forthcoming test series turns out to be even more lip-smacking than the last two. Both sides have already started the verbal duel, and it is a mix of provocation and praise.

From Pakistan's side, everyone is talking about how Shoaib Akhtar is back to his best, and Indians should be wary of him. There is talk of preparing fast, bouncy pitches to assist the Pakistani pacemen. Sehwag, who has scored almost a thousand runs against them in just six tests, has been singled out as the major threat. Inzi however asserts that he trusts Pakistani bowlers to win the series for him. Wasim Akram seems to have remember at last that he is a Pakistani, not an Indian, and has also said some things like how Pakistan are a stronger team, how Pathan's progress has been disappointing, etc.

From India's side, the Chappell effect is obvious with a lot more lip than usual. Dhoni has dares Pakistanis to pitch it short. Dravid has said that Pak's ploy is wrong. He has also backed Harbhajan to do well. Tendulkar has backed India's seam attack and said that if Pakistan prepare pitches which are extra-conducive to pace, then it could backfire on them.

This time's series promises to be awesome for sure, because both teams are on a high. When we visited Pakistan last time, we were on a high, and they were in disarray. When they visited us last, they were on the defensive, and we were in shambles, having just lost to Australia. This time both teams go in with an equal amount of self-confidence. India after having destroyed Sri Lanka completely and Pakistan after routing England comprehensively. It is also crucial to note that since this is the third series in less than 2 years, there are no "unknown entities" for each other. Both teams know each other inside out, and the strategising this time round will happen at a much more evolved level.

Shoaib Akhtar has been getting wickets, but they have been more due to variation than due to raw pace. It signals a much-awaited maturing of the paceman, and I am sure Dravid and Chappell will be poring over the tapes to sort out every variation of his. Rana Naved has grown a lot since he was hit for 24 runs in a single over by Sehwag in Karachi two years back. Kaneria too will have learnt from last year's mistakes, but he would do well to remember that Indians are very different from the Poms. They have just negotiated Murali with ease and thumped his team. Among the Pakistani batsmen, it is good to see Salman Butt back in the team, and opening regularly. Kamran Akmal's growth as a batsman has made him a worthy successor to Moin Khan. Inzy and Youhana are of course, as dependable as ever.

For India, Sehwag is in good form, and though he hasn't been converting his starts, which better side than his favourite Pakistan to do it against? Tendulkar is looking in ominous touch, and recognising that this will probably be his last tour to the land where he made his debut, might churn out a few special knocks. Dravid is Dravid, and we can count on him to give us at least one double ton. But the man to watch out, in my opinion, is VVS Laxman. He is a guy who, on striking form, continues in the same vein for months. He was playing beautifully against the Lankans and Pakistan has exactly the kind of attack he loves. The Gambhir-Jaffer toss-up will be interesting to watch, as will the Yuvraj-Ganguly toss-up. It is difficult to see Ganguly replacing yuvraj after the latter's recent form, but maybe Ganguly will replace Gambhir-Jaffer and open the innings with Sehwag. Though Patel has chimed in with his willingness to open, Dhoni's star status will ensure that Patel plays the role only of a tourist.

Anil Kumble is closing in on 500 wickets, and would love to get them in Pakistan by repeating his great showing. Pathan will love to repeat his performance as well, both with the ball and the bat. It was in Pakistan that he first showed the potential to bat, with a fighting 49. Agarkar, whose progress has been unnoticed will look to consolidate his position, in the light of Zaheer's return to the side. And Bhajji, who missed the last tour, and had a great test at Ahmedababd, will look to bask in the spotlight.

I would back the Indians to win this time as well, but they will have to work a lot harder than last time.