London: On the eve of his first Test match as captain, Shahid Afridi insisted today that his Pakistan side is united and that the disciplinary issues that marred its Australia tour seven months ago are a thing of the past.
Pakistan meets Australia which has not lost a test to Pakistan for 15 years at Lord’s on Tuesday in the first of two Test matches.
The matches will be played at a neutral venue, but are considered a home series for Pakistan, which is playing its home internationals on neutral territory because of ongoing concerns about the security of teams touring the country.
The second Test at Headingley starts on July 21.
“As a captain I am trying to keep the guys as close as I can,” Afridi said. “Normally, I will take the boys for a dinner together. The communication problem is not any more now.
“We are all sitting together, talking to each other. They come to me or the coach with their problems. It is not easy (keeping the unity), especially as they all come from different cultures and cities, but I respect the guys and they are feeling good under my captaincy.”
For Afridi and Pakistan it is a fresh start. Afridi is playing his first test match in four years while Pakistan’s previous test series was a 3-0 defeat in Australia. Several sanctions were meted out to players following that tour for disciplinary infractions.
Batsmen Mohammed Yousuf, Pakistan’s third-highest run-scorer in Tests, and Younis Khan, Pakistan’s fifth-highest run-scorer in Tests, were given indefinite bans for alleged infighting. Younus, who quit the captaincy before the Australia tour, has subsequently had his ban overturned on appeal but has not been selected for this tour.
Yousuf, who captained the side in Australia, retired in protest at the ban but is still wanted in the team by Afridi. Shoaib Malik is in the squad after his one-year ban was overturned.
Afridi acknowledged his team’s lack of experience but is confident the youngsters can perform given an opportunity. Although Afridi said the team will not be named until Tuesday, Azhar Ali and Umar Amin are expected to make their Test debuts.
“The team is totally different,” Afridi said. “We don’t have Younus Khan or Mohammed Yousuf but we do have some youngsters who have performed at domestic level. Our strength is definitely our bowling.”
Australia captain Ricky Ponting said he was not aware of the infighting among the Pakistanis when they played in December and January, but he is aware of the issues they have had to contend with.
“You never know but they are a team which is renowned for having their up and down days,” Ponting said. “You never know what’s happening behind closed doors.
“We saw the bans and the fines that came out, but that’s none of our business and all we can concentrate on is our own cricket over the next 10-12 days.”
Australia is building toward the Ashes series against England in November, Ponting said, and will give Test debuts to leg-spinner Steven Smith and reserve wicketkeeper Tim Paine.
Afridi admitted it is easier to play Australia since the retirements of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and “especially Matthew Hayden” but was less certain about playing a home series in England.
“It’s totally different playing your home series away from home because of the conditions,” Afridi said. “We have seen a couple of games in England like the matches between England and Bangladesh and one or two against Australia also and the pitches looked good. We are lucky we have had good weather here.”
Marylebone Cricket Club said it has sold just over 11,000 tickets for each of the first two days and about 10,000 for the third day. Lord’s has a capacity of around 29,000.
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (captain), Salman Butt, Imran Farhat, Azhar Ali, Umar Amin, Umar Akmal, Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Aamer, Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria, Mohammad Asif, Shoaib Malik, Yasir Hameed.
Australia: Ricky Ponting (captain), Shane Watson, Simon Katich, Michael Clarke, Mike Hussey, Marcus North, Tim Paine, Steven Smith, Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Doug Bollinger.