First Test: Battle between ‘equals’ begins at Kotla

By Qaiser Mohammad Ali, IANS

New Delhi : Off-white flannels replace coloured pyjamas as the real battle between ‘equals’ begin with the India-Pakistan first Test here Thursday, with both teams’ inexperienced captains facing injury problems.

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As players discard their coloured One-Day International uniforms and pull out the more soothing whites, connoisseurs of the game will hope to sit back and enjoy the battle of wits, strategy and mind games over the next five days at the historic Ferozeshah Kotla.

Both Anil Kumble, who will lead India for the first time in Test cricket after Sachin Tendulkar declined the honour to concentrate on his batting, and Shoaib Malik, a compromise choice after the retirement of Inzamam-ul-Haq, have little experience of captaining their sides in Test cricket. Their worries have increased with a spate of injuries to key players.

Circumstances have made the two teams almost equal, and Malik agrees. “Since Kumble will be new to the job, both teams are now equally matched in the Test series,” Malik said after his team recorded a consolation win in the fifth ODI in Jaipur.

A former vice-captain, Kumble, who readily accepted captaincy when the selectors turned to him after Tendulkar’s refusal, is meanwhile taking the new job as a “challenge”.

Pakistan badly missed fast bowler Mohammed Asif in their 2-3 defeat in the just-concluded One-Day International series while India felt the first tremors Tuesday when pacers Rudra Pratap Singh, who has been in superb form for the last few months, and S. Sreesanth were ruled out of the match.

Although India will miss the frolics of an aggressive Sreesanth and the swing and deception of left-armer R.P. Singh, the wicket-to-wicket accuracy of fast bowler Munaf Patel, who has been drafted in as the sole replacement for the two pacers, will compensate to some extent their absence.

Leg-spinner Kumble and India will take confidence from the Kotla, which has a special place in the skipper’s heart. Also boosting the confidence will be the return of master batsman Rahul Dravid, who comes back after being dropped for the just concluded ODI series.

It was on this very ground that Kumble not only resurrected his international cricket career in an Irani Trophy match in 1992 but also made history seven years later by taking all 10 wickets in an innings against Wasim Akram’s Pakistan. He became only the second bowler after England’s Jim Laker to have achieved that feat in Test history.

As a counter to Kumble, off-spinner Harbhajan Singh and left-arm spinner Murali Karthik, Pakistan have picked leg-spinner Danish Kaneria for the three Tests and retained left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman for the series in which spinners are expected to play a major role.

However, pacers Zaheer Khan and Munaf in the Indian side and their Pakistani counterparts Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul, Sohail Tanveer and Mohammad Sami also promise to make it an interesting battle, which is likely to be dominated by batsmen.

The likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman will definitely give India an edge over Pakistan, who will largely depend on Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq besides captain Shoaib Malik for big totals in their 333rd Test.

The Indian team management will also have to grapple with the issue of accommodating Yuvraj Singh, who is in roaring form but is still not an automatic starter in Test matches.

This will be the first problem that captain Kumble will face when he chairs the team meeting to pick the XI for India’s 409th Test match.

Besides their batting strength, India will also enjoy the home advantage, though the Delhi crowds will miss the two local boys — Virender Sehwag and in-form Gautam Gambhir — who have been dropped for the first two matches.

India also have history on their side. The home side has won two of the four matches played against Pakistan at the Kotla — the very first in 1952-53 and the historic encounter in 1999. The other two have ended in draws.

The curator, Radhey Shyam, is the same who prepared the pitch on which Kumble took all 10 wickets in an innings and the venue’s best match haul of 14 wickets. But the umpire A.V. Jayaprakash, who adjudged all the 10 dismissals on that Feb 7 afternoon in 1999 will not be there.

India: Anil Kumble (captain), Mahendra Singh Dhoni (vice-captain/wicket-keeper), Wasim Jaffer, Dinesh Karthik, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, Murali Kartik and Munaf Patel

Pakistan: Shoaib Malik (captain), Younis Khan (vice-captain), Mohammad Yousuf, Salman Butt, Yasir Hameed, Faisal Iqbal, Misbah-ul-Haq, Kamran Akmal (wicket-keeper), Sarfraz Ahmed (wicket-keeper), Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul, Sohail Tanveer, Mohammad Sami, Danish Kaneria and Abdur Rehman

Umpires: Simon Taufel (Australia) and Billy Doctrove (West Indies)

Third umpire: Suresh Shastri (India)

Fourth umpire: Harnarain Singh Sekhon (India)