Sharjah: Two days after the Southwark Crown Court's landmark verdict in the spot-fixing investigation, Pakistan's players will have to forget about their former team-mates and focus on five days of hard Test cricket. They play at a venue favoured by their predecessors but much has changed since those heady days of the 1980s. In 2001 the Indian government banned the national side from playing there but Pakistan's exile as a cricketing venue has given the Emirates a fresh lease of life in recent years, and Sharjah is set to host its first Test in nine years, and fifth overall.
The Pakistan side that takes guard on Thursday will also be unrecognisable from the flashy crowd-pullers that used to grace this venue back in the day. More tellingly, they have little in common with the outfit that sizzled with the ball and floundered with the bat in England last summer. The last time Pakistan lined up for Test cricket in Sharjah, they were handed two ruthless hammerings by Australia, including the ignominy of being bowled out for 59 and 53 in the same match. Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Taufeeq Umar were a part of that series in 2002, and each of them would disappear into Pakistan's fringes before re-emerging, stronger than ever. The trio lends the Pakistan line-up a look of steel that was last seen when Inzamam-ul-Haq was still playing. The bowling line-up has lost the Mohammads Asif and Amir but Junaid Khan has already replicated their ability to hoop the ball each way - that too under an unrelenting sun and on unresponsive tracks.
While Pakistan have blended their innate flair with discipline to take a 1-0 lead, their opponents continue to regress inexplicably. Muttiah Muralitharan's absence has left the bowling hamstrung, but that is only one half of the story. The lack of bowling nous has put Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene under such intense pressure that it has affected their productivity with the bat. The captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, is going through a horror run of form as well - he has scored 177 runs in his last nine outings, 83 of those coming in one innings against Australia. A turnaround in his personal fortunes will help his team get back on track.