The question of the moment is whether Shoaib Akhtar will be fit to bowl at The Oval on Thursday. He looked the part against a strong West Indies A team at Shenley yesterday, running in first from 18 strides and bowling fast with the wind behind him but without much length or direction. His opening, eight-over spell cost 44 runs although he did bowl Devon Smith, a Test player himself. He will play at some stage this summer, but more likely in the one-day series.
A longer-term issue of greater importance, which emerged during yesterday's game, is Pakistan's open criticism of the International Cricket Council's umpiring policy, and especially the selection of Darrell Hair to umpire Tests this summer after he had seriously alienated the Pakistan team during last winter's series against England.
Shaharyar Khan, a dashing retired diplomat who sits on the ICC's executive board and chairs Pakistan's board, reverted to undiplomatic language to describe Hair's performance last winter: "Dominating, dismissive and intimidating."
Khan proposes to raise the selection of controversial umpires with the ICC umpiring committee at the end of the summer. Already the post-match report by Pakistan's manager and captain after the Headingley Test criticised umpiring decisions. TV replays suggested that three appeals in England's first innings had been wrongly given not out.
Inzamam-ul-Haq diplomatically declined to comment yesterday. He did, however, freely admit to still feeling pain from the rib injury he suffered at Headingley though it will not keep him away from The Oval.
Shoaib is keen to join him. After his first spell in first-class cricket for six months, he said the left ankle which had had a stress fracture, felt "good''. Pakistan's coaches say Shoaib is fit but not match fit. They watched him bowl 11 overs yesterday and hope he will bowl 15 more in the second one-day match against West Indies A today. They will decide whether he is ready for the Test after that.
But Bob Woolmer, Pakistan's coach, seems to have made up his mind. He insists that doctors do not favour an early return from stress fractures, and implies he agrees. He will speak to Shoaib before the decision is taken but he suggested yesterday that he sees no reason to risk one of his main assets at the end of a dead series. "It is less necessary to bring in people who have had injuries now that the series is lost.'' Woolmer wants Shoaib back for the one-day series: "The perfect scenario,'' he says.
Shoaib returned for a second, shorter spell yesterday without taking any more wickets.
Besides doubts about his fitness, however, his radar was rusty yesterday and the West Indian batsmen found scoring off him easy. His first spell ended with him conceding 14 runs off three balls and his final figures were 11-1-49-1. Lendl Simmons, with a typically West Indian high backlift and flashing blade, scored an unbeaten 107 in the West Indies' 214-4 off 40 overs.
But the spectators at Shenley had been glad to see Shoaib, partly because more than half of them were Pakistanis who had braved the cold north wind and sunless sky which had meant a late start and a match curtailed from 50 to 40 overs a side. On this occasion, the Indian foodstore did more business than the beer tent.