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Seniors under pressure.
by Suresh Menon
Nov 04, 2007
Not for the first time in an India-Pakistan series, it will be the senior players who will be under trial. In recent years, many stalwarts - Javed Miandad, Asif Iqbal, Saqlain Mushtaq, Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath and Erapally Prasanna - played their final game against the neighbours. Gavaskar alone went out on a high, after making a brilliant 96 in the Bangalore Test two decades ago.

The pressure on some of the best players on either side when such a series comes around can only be imagined. Captains are routinely deposed, border-line cases are tipped over into the void from which no one returns, and despite all talk of friendship and neighbourliness, the stark fact remains that officials are as unforgiving of losing teams as fans.

The Big Four of Indian cricket - Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly - find themselves under pressure thanks to a combination of official apathy, media speculation and inconsistent team performances. Dravid is out of the first two ODIs - he will surely return - while selective leaks to the media have readjusted the Damocles’ sword over Ganguly’s head. The Indian captain for the Tests will be announced after the ODIs in Guwahati (commencing on Monday) and Chandigarh (Nov 9), thus putting additional pressure on Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Tendulkar, each of whom hopes to get the job.

“Yousuf and I are the only oldies,” vice captain Younis Khan has said of Pakistan’s team. Mohammed Yousuf is 33 and Younis himself will turn 30 this month. Unlike the Indian team with its focus on the batsmen, Pakistan’s main attraction is the bowling, with Shoaib Akhtar looking to establish himself among the greats of the era. He is 32, and time is running out for him too.

It is tempting, therefore to label this as an Indian batting versus Pakistani bowling series. If that stays true, then the calculations become simple. One-day matches are won by batsmen, Test matches by bowlers; thus the better batting team is fancied for the shorter game while the better bowling team gets the nod for the Tests. But then nothing is ever simple in an India-Pakistan encounter.

Should Pakistan bowl first in the two day games, they can run through the early batting, as bowlers from England and Australia have shown this season. India have done well in the ODIs when the openers Tendulkar and Ganguly have done well. But that is not why the selectors have filled the team with five openers - Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and Robin Uthappa being the others. Sehwag is on the comeback trail, he has a good record against Pakistan. Chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar who said a year ago that India has no bench strength is now announcing at regular intervals that bench strength is what India have plenty of.

The last time the teams met - in India in 2004-05 - Pakistan won the one-day series 4-2, and drew the Test series 1-1. They were expected to lose both to an Indian team that had just performed well in Australia and in Pakistan. This time too they landed in India as the lesser team, without their batting icon of many years Inzamamul Haq who has exchanged his bat for a broadcaster’s mike, and without Mohammad Asif who pulled out through injury just before the team’s departure. Asif will join the team later.

The series begins with two new captains at the helm - Dhoni has shown himself to be an imaginative, attacking captain while Shoaib Malik is not too far behind. If both retain that positive attitude, it will complete the transition from the Mankad-Kardar era when not losing was more important than winning, when captains hankered after drawn matches, and when sheer boredom was the result.

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