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Friday, December 17, 2010

The shining talents with a dark edge

Pakistan's Shahid Afridi and his teammates will bring plenty of action for to their upcoming New Zealand tour. Photo / APHere's a thought: what should we expect of the Pakistan tourists when they arrive on Sunday?
They're in New Zealand for a decent length of time, with three T20s, a couple of tests and six ODIs to round things off in preparation for the World Cup starting in mid-February.
In terms of producing gifted young cricketers, a case can be mounted that they are second only to India. The problem in recent times is not enough of them go on to make a significant difference.
There's also a large dark corner in the Pakistani dressing room, which we'll come to in a moment.
This time three different squads are being named.
Pakistan won the world T20 title in England last year on a wave of sympathy after having their ability to host international cricket ripped away in the wake of the Lahore terror attack 21 months ago.
They can play the shortest form as well as anyone, armed as they are with handy batsmen, explosive hitters for the latter stages and some decent bowlers.Their fielding is notoriously hit and miss, but they should be formidable opposition in the three T20s between Boxing Day and December 30 when they will be led by one of the game's more spectacular, if erratic, entertainers, Shahid Afridi.
The two tests will reveal how much Pakistan are missing their three suspended players, new-ball kingpins Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer, and senior batsman Salman Butt.
The test squad will be led by Misbah-ul-Haq, a 36-year-old who has been in and out of the national side for some time.
He hit three successive half-centuries in Dubai last month as Pakistan drew their two-test series with South Africa.
Misbah is skipper largely because he's kept his nose clean amid the squabbling which has been an all-too-common feature of Pakistani cricket in recent years. He is not seen as a divisive figure.
He will have the terrific Younis Khan as his senior batsman, a player with a tremendous record.
Younis hit his 17th test 100 in his most recent innings in Dubai against the South Africans, boasting a test average in excess of 50 and a well-deserved reputation as a scrapper.
Gifted young Umar Akmal is the other batsman with a pile of pressure on his 20-year-old shoulders.
Umar Gul is a workhorse with the ball, ageing Shoaib Akhtar is here for the short games but far from the typhoon of old; while Kuwait-born Tanvir Ahmed is a late bloomer who took six South African wickets on debut in Dubai last month. Wahab Riaz provides the left-arm option and performed tidily in England a few months ago.
An Akmal will be keeping, but not Kamran of a year ago, rather Umar's other brother, Adnan, who made his debut against South Africa in Dubai last month.
Wicketkeeping has been a problem area of late for Pakistan.
Kamran had a suspicious finger pointed at him after four chances were blown by the gloveman against Australia in what is now rated an extremely dodgy display in Sydney last summer.
Since then, Zulqarnain Haider shot through to London during the ODI series against the South Africans, claiming to have received threats and intimidation if he did not help fix games.
Kamral Akmal was not given clearance by the Pakistan board's integrity committee for this tour, nor was former captain (and that's not the elite club it is in most test-playing countries) Shoaib Malik. That sounds a damning indictment.
And here we come to the shadow hanging over the Pakistanis.
Three of their best players are suspended over the spot-fixing allegations during the England tour and several others are alleged to have been involved in illegal activities by Mazhar Majeed, the alleged middle-man in the match-fixing scandal.
Those players have not been named but are known to the Pakistan board.
So will any of them be in New Zealand? It's fair to think some will.
The spinoff from that is how the team will be received here?
Butt, Aamer and Asif were fingered over allegedly bowling no balls to specific instructions against England.
You can be sure the first no ball called at Eden Park on Boxing Day will get the treatment from the crowd.
And the further corollary to all that is how will the New Zealand public know if a game is on the level? That's the level, so to speak, to which this business has sunk.
Pakistan will face a New Zealand team in the dumps after 11 straight ODI defeats but back in familiar surroundings and desperate to buck up their game.
The tourists will figure this a grand opportunity to prove themselves on the park. "The confidence [from the South African series, where they also lost the ODIs 3-2] will help us play anywhere and it is a big boost for the self-belief of the players," Misbah said.
For a mix of reasons, this could be a tour here like no other.

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