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Cricket: Uncertainty still surrounds buoyant Pakistan

Uncertainty still surrounds buoyant Pakistan - Sports News - Stick CricketA rare tournament win and a rarer tournament at home means Pakistan go into their opening game of the ninth Asia Cup in what can, for once, be called a buoyant mood. Opening against Hong Kong in this most irregular of tournaments only adds to the confidence, enough to alleviate some of the early pressure that comes from being hosts.

"We are professionals and the pressure in all games is high," Shoaib Malik, Pakistan's captain, told reporters. "Our morale is high after our win in Bangladesh and we will again be aiming to do our best here."

High spirits or not, the suspicion still lurks that no one really knows what Pakistan's best team is at the moment. Permutations and combinations still remain unresolved. No preview of Pakistan would be complete without a glance at the openers for instance. Malik has long insisted that Salman Butt and Kamran Akmal are his preferred pair in ODIs, but the latter's overdue dropping confuses an already confused issue.

The murmurs are that Malik himself may open, which given his successes higher up the ODI order, is not a bad call. Shahid Afridi will also be in the running no doubt, despite his traditional reluctance. Either of these options allows Pakistan the luxury of a sixth bowler, but it also means Nasir Jamshed, who should really be tested here and now, may miss out.

Everyone knows what Pakistan's first-choice pace attack should be, but equally they know there is as much chance of them playing together as there is of uninterrupted 24-hour electricity supply through the country. Umar Gul, Sohail Tanvir and Rao Iftikhar are a willing trio, though perhaps missing just a little menace.

Sohail Khan, the designated 'next big thing', will not be around to provide it, missing out with malaria. "Our bowlers did pretty well in the Bangladesh tri-series," Malik reasoned. "Sohail Khan has a great future ahead of him but it is unfortunate that he is out with malaria." Saeed Ajmal's inclusion provides Pakistan with some variety at least, and a first specialist offspinning option since the under-rated Arshad Khan.

Most eyes, however, will be on the boy behind the stumps, the ebullient Sarfraz Ahmed. Long touted as Akmal's understudy and given opportunities only intermittently, the former Under-19 captain is unlikely to get a better chance to take over the gloves: a big stage, crunch games and an uninterrupted run of at least six matches.

Typically of this modern wicketkeeping age, the only question asked about Sarfraz was of his batting skills, the implication being of course, whether he can provide the kind of high-elbowed oomph Akmal occasionally did. Malik, a keen backer of Akmal, didn't sound altogether convincing in stating his case.

"He has batting ability. He can bat, but he plays lower down the order," he said. "There is a little gap between him and Akmal but Sarfraz will improve the more he plays." More than runs, Pakistan will just want Sarfraz to take what chances come his way.

And in June and July, it might not be that straightforward. This is the first time international cricket will be played in Pakistan at this time of the year and if New Zealand or any other country visits in August prior to the Champions Trophy, it effectively means cricket has been played all year-round here. Even in the late 4pm starts, conditions will be stifling and humidity high, though God's gift to Karachi - the sea breeze - might help. Under lights, more extraneous factors can be added.

Malik has the unconcern of a captain who has won more than he has lost recently. "That shouldn't affect us at all. We are professionals and we have to perform in hot or cold conditions. In Bangladesh recently it was hotter than this anyway so it doesn't matter."

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