The arrival of the Pakistan team in England is usually surrounded by controversy. It is often the time when many of cricket's more sensitive issues mysteriously raise their head. Pakistan's players are not the only cricketers who are believed to be involved in match-fixing, ball-tampering and throwing, but it is to them that these subjects most adhere themselves.
The selection of Shoaib Akhtar in the 16-man squad for this week's three NatWest Challenge matches against England will ensure that such attention continues to dog the tourists. For Shoaib, the world's fastest bowler, is in the middle of a two-match ban after being caught tampering with a ball during a recent one-day tournament in Sri Lanka.
It is the second time in six months he has been caught using his finger on something he should not and it caused him to miss the final of that competition. The 27-year-old will serve the other half of his ban on Tuesday when he sits on the side-lines for the first match at Old Trafford.
Shoaib, however, remains the most colourful character in a Pakistan squad that bears little resemblance to the one which returned home early from the World Cup in March. After failing to reach the Super Six stage of the tournament, the selectors wielded a very sharp axe. Out went Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq, Saeed Anwar, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Abdul Razzaq and Shoaib - some of the world's greatest one-day players. In came a group of talented young cricketers whom England supporters will have heard little.
Such is the whim of the Pakistan selectors - and it has been their own individual political agendas which has been one of the main reasons for the team's inconsistency - that Razzaq and Shoaib have returned. Shoaib, whose playboy lifestyle has led many to questioning his commitment to cricket, is on his last warning as far as the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board is concerned. "Let me make this clear," said Lieutenant General Tauqir Zia talking about Shoaib after the World Cup. "If Shoaib does not improve his behaviour and general discipline he has no place in the team... In my book, if Shoaib can't improve his attitude and become more focused on cricket his career is over.
"The Board and myself have supported him all along and spent a lot of money on his welfare," he added, "even when match officials reported his action. He was allowed a lot of latitude because we thought he was a genuine match-winner but he let the country down badly in the World Cup."
Despite his latest misdemeanour these threats appear to have had the desired affect. Shoaib bowled with distinction in Sri Lanka and will be the bowler England's batsman watch closest. Marcus Trescothick and Vikram Solanki, the pairing expected to open the batting, will need no reminding that it was against England that Shoaib bowled the first-ever recorded 100mph ball at the World Cup.
It is unlikely Shoaib will take the new ball when he plays on this tour. This responsibility will be given to Mohammad Sami and Umar Gul, two relatively unknown fast bowlers. Sami, a survivor of the World Cup, has made the most of his opportunities since the departure of his more illustrious team-mates. The skiddy right-arm paceman was voted the player of the series in Sharjah after taking nine wickets in four games.
His opening partner, Gul, has an unusual style for a Pakistan bowler. The 19-year-old is not fast and has a method more akin to that of an English seamer in that he consistently tries to pitch the ball in the right area. The aggressive medium-fast bowling of Razzaq and Azhar Mahmood will offer the captain Rashid Latif plenty of options in the middle of the innings, as will the leg-spin of Danish Kaneria. Extras have consistently given Pakistan the feeling they are playing against 12 men and Rashid will be looking for much greater discipline from his new team of bowlers.
Pakistan's young batsmen could not have a better one-day cricketer to work with than Javed Miandad. Regarded by many as the best-ever limited-overs player, Miandad, who scored 7,381 runs at an average of 41.7 in the 233 matches he played for his country, is attempting to revert his team back to the approach adopted by batting sides of his day. Then, pinch-hitters were rarely seen and it was wickets in hand at the end of an innings which was the goal. It is why Shahid Afridi, that most explosive of opening batsmen, has been left out.
Pakistan, as any side would, have struggled to replace Saeed at the top of the innings and the role of their two young openers, Yasir Hameed and Mohammed Hafeez, is not to make the most of the fielding restrictions in the first 15 overs, but to give the innings a sound platform. From this they will hope their big guns in the middle order - Yousuf Youhana, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik, Razzaq and Mahmood - can make up for any shortcomings at the start.
With so many young players in the England and Pakistan teams, the fielding should be of a particularly high standard. This has been an area which the visitors have previously paid little attention, preferring to rely on their natural talent to win them games rather than discipline. This team, however, is reputed to be as good a fielding side as any they has produced.
Watching Pakistan play cricket is always a pleasant experience. Because of the lack of quality coaching at home there is a rawness and naïvety about the way they go about their business. At times it can lead to incidents you would not see in the school playground. On other occasions it is breathtaking. The next week will give England a chance to see whether the new generation of Pakistan cricketers is as talented as the last.Reuse content