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Captaincy conundrum for Pakistan

Nothing stirs Pakistan cricket more than defeat by India. A first-ever Test series loss in India in 27 years - preceded by the ODI series reverse - and particularly the insipid manner of defeat has ensured that discontent with the status quo is gathering strength.

The prime target is the captaincy. The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has reiterated its full support to Shoaib Malik, the incumbent, till December 2008. But Younis Khan's recent change of heart over the captaincy has clouded matters.

Younis, it is emerging, is not only open to the idea of captaincy now but is actively keen on it. Though Nasim Ashraf, chairman of the board, has publicly said it is too late - still smarting, perhaps, from Younis's earlier refusal - Younis is now understood to have support from quarters within the board, as well as from key players within the team.

The support is understandable, says one official. "His performances while captain, in particular the fact that his batting has been largely unaffected by leadership and that he is a certain starter in any Test side, weigh heavily in his favour." By contrast, Malik's continuing inability to convince people of his Test credentials, more even than concerns about his leadership or attitude, do him no favours.

One official, broadly sympathetic to Malik as captain, even admitted "he makes the middle order by default, because there is no competition, no other real candidate. The captaincy is officially not available to Younis, but in Pakistan you can never say." As an endorsement for continuity, it is hardly convincing.

And there is also reason to believe that the selectors, if put in a dilemma by the credentials of a better-performing middle-order candidate, would not hesitate to drop Malik from the Test side.

The issue is further complicated by what more than one tour official privately admits to be "some friction" between Malik and Younis. The rift is thought to have emanated from certain selectorial decisions, including the decision initially to send Shahid Afridi back after the ODIs, one Younis was unhappy with. The rift could have a potentially divisive effect on the team.

One official, broadly sympathetic to Malik as captain, even admitted "he makes the middle order by default, because there is no competition, no other real candidate. The captaincy is officially not available to Younis, but in Pakistan you can never say"

One source close to the team management also suggested the back injury that kept Umar Gul out of the series might not have been so serious as to rule him out; the implication being that his not playing is somehow linked to his closeness to Younis and being part of that camp. Younis is also said to be less than pleased by the insistence of Geoff Lawson, the coach, and Malik to play Mohammad Sami in the last two Tests.

Captaincy aside, the role of Lawson is also being discussed. The chairman gave him his public backing, but not before questioning - also publicly - why he was unable to extract better performances from his team. Some senior players admit to being underwhelmed by Lawson thus far.

Even one official who supported the decision to appoint Lawson now acknowledges that "so far, we have not seen anything outstanding from him, strategy or tactics-wise. I am inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, because it is still early, but certainly he has not been as impressive so far as we hoped."

Nothing so far suggests that any key decisions will be taken in a hurry. For one, there is no pressing need: Pakistan's next assignment is a low-key five-match ODI series against Zimbabwe. But in March, Australia visit and one official admitted "that will be the make-or-break series". Change might pre-empt it, or change may come as a result of it, but change, it increasingly appears, may be inevitable - and soon.

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