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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Butterflies again !

Once again we are on the threshold of a Pakistan-India cricket series and once again I am a bit nervous. I have followed so many of these series by now and yet I have the same butterflies in my stomach today in 2006 as I had when I followed my first Pakistan-India series in 1978.

Then, I was nervous about what Majid, Javed, Zaheer, Mushtaq and Asif would do to Bedi and Chandra. And was not sure about how Sunny and Vishy would fare against Sarfaraz and Imran. (At that time I rated Majid more than any other Pakistani batsman and Sarfaraz higher than Imran).

In later years, my nervousness, now definitely more like anxiety, would extend to fears about India-tormentors like Mudassar Nazar and Salim Malik. When India would get mercilessly thrashed, I would sometimes wish that the team would just pack up and return home. There is only so much of Imran Khan, for all his good looks, that you can take as a diehard Indian cricket fan.

Since the Pak ascendancy days of the 1980s, a semblance of parity has been restored between the two sides. This does make for more interesting following. Not that a Pakistan-India series is ever anything less than compelling (unless you have to watch Shoaib Mohammad and Rizwan-uz-Zaman), but if the teams are well-balanced the outcome lends itself much more to speculation – which is of course one of the favourite pastimes of any cricket lover anywhere !

Coming to the present series, my guess is that both teams must be pretty nervous as well. Unlike the 2004 series in Pakistan (which had "goodwill" and "bridge-building" written all over it) and the return 2005 series in India (which also had reciprocal "we can also be good hosts" written all over it), this time it is (cricketing) business as usual.

I expect that unless the weather becomes a major spoiler, cricket will be fought very fiercely in this series. No quarters given, none taken. Pakistan are on a high at the moment with their thumping win over England, under Woolmer they look a totally transformed side to the one that, under Miandad, played host to India two years ago.

Finally they seem to be playing as a team, many of their players are in good form and the wickets can be tailormade to their advantage.

India, on the other hand, must be hoping against hope that some of their players, especially their batsmen, come out of their slump. In the recent home series against Sri Lanka, almost all the top-order Indian batsmen struggled and it was often left to the Pathans and Agarkars to take India to respectability.

Against a hungry Pakistan, with Shoaib Akhtar firing on all cylinders, Rana Naved ever the under-rated danger man and Kaneria now finally recognised as a genuine match-winner, the Indian top-order batting cannot choose a worse time to lose its way.

Having said that, India has this strange habit of pampering weak opposition and shrugging its shoulders while playing the tougher ones. Thus the Indian batsmen, led by the most exciting Virender Sehwag, seem to relish the Australias and the Pakistans of this world. So it may yet be a contest for the Pakistani bowlers. At least so we should hope otherwise it could become a one-sided show which would do tremendous injustice to all the pre-series hype and expectation.

Talking of the Indian bowling, I do not know what to make of it. I do not have any particular expectations from Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan and Ajit Agarkar. They are good bowlers but are they good enough to rock the top-order Pakistani batsmen ? As an Indian, I would like to be optimistic and answer that in the affirmative. And I do believe this to be the case - but for that to happen, not only do they need to produce the odd "dream delivery" (which all of them are capable of producing) but also bowl consistently well. And that is where I have my doubts about this threesome. They bowl very well in spells but are just as liable to bowl short or overpitched ones - which a batsman of Butt's class or Younis Khan's patience will gratefully tonk to the cover boundary. Ask Glen McGrath (or, in a different generation, Brian Statham) - one of the biggest weapons a bowler has in his armoury is to just wear out a quality batsman by sustained, relentless accuracy and variation. The Indian bowlers will do well to learn this lesson for it can reap rich rewards against a side which, although I consider extremely talented, I do not rate very highly on batting discipline.

Coming to the spin duo, Kumble and Harbhajan. In the series in India, Kumble managed to outfox Inzy embarrassingly frequently. That may give some Indians hope. But in the last six months, Inzy has grown several inches and to expect similar results in a repeat Inzy-Kumble contest is perhaps stretching Indian hopes a bit too far. But Kumble is one intelligent bowler and, kookaburra or no kookaburra, will carry a billion hopes on his experienced shoulders when he bangs in that ball and tries to make it rear from that good-length spot.

Harbhajan is often the under-rated bowler of the duo - largely because he often comes across as deceptively slow and easy. But make no mistake - once he tastes blood, he has the ability to transform a game completely by suddenly forcing the batsmen into making mistakes.

The Pakistani batsmen will probably fancy their chances against the Indian pacers, considering they blunted the attack of Harmison and Flintoff just over a month ago. But the Indians do not need the acclimatisation that English players need and there should be no comparisons as such made between England and India. This is a new series against a new set of opponents and it needs to be played with a different set of considerations.

All in all, one thing we can all be very sure of. This is about as high-pressure as it gets. Indian captain Rahul Dravid is reported to be a bit glum in the last couple of days and, while the media and public is quick to point to internal selection issues as the cause of this, it could just be that he realizes all too well the magnitude of the task ahead of him and may be, just maybe, he is beginning to feel the pressure. We all know the qualities of Rahul Dravid the batsman while under pressure on the cricket field – let us hope Rahul Dravid the captain is able to call upon those very special qualities to rise to the challenge.

Finally, it may well be that this becomes the decisive factor. Talent and form is all very well but, as we have seen only too often in India-Pakistan games, the team that is able to better handle the pressure cooker situations that will no doubt come up throughout the series may be the one smiling in a month’s time.

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