DUBAI // There was a time when the spectacle of Shoaib Akhtar facing off against Brett Lee would have been a box-office hit in itself. Never mind the side issue of an intriguing series between the world champions, Australia, and the crowd-favourites, Pakistan. The 2003 ICC World Cup in South Africa, when both players reached their maximum velocity, was illuminated by their race to see who could break the 100mph mark first.
How times have changed. When the duo arrive in the UAE later this month for their duel in the desert, it will be less a case of discerning who is fastest and more about settling which of these goods has been damaged least. Shoaib, 33, has been beset by disciplinary as well as fitness problems in the recent past. He has recovered from the knee injury which ruled him out of the Pakistan squad for their aborted tour of Bangladesh in time to tour the UAE for the first time since the 2002 Sharjah Cup.
Lee, meanwhile, has persuaded Australia's selectors he is fit to travel to the Emirates, following a remarkably swift recovery from an ankle and foot operation in January. The initial plan was to test him in the physically forgiving climate of the Indian Premier League, but he is eager to prove his fitness at the earliest opportunity. His participation is still not 100 per cent certain, according to the Australian chairman of selectors Andrew Hilditch.
"Brett Lee has been included in the squad subject to fitness," said Hilditch. "His return to bowling at full pace will be monitored carefully and will be reviewed closer to the date of the tour. "We have added an additional bowler to the squad to enable us to manage the workload of the fast bowlers, and in particular Brett, during the tour." The haste at which Lee, 32, has returned may be due in part to the success of the new crop of Australian pace bowlers, who have filled the breach admirably in his absence.
According to Rod Marsh, who played 96 Test matches for Australia, Lee will be eager to regain his status as his country's leading strike-bowler, which has since been assumed by Mitchell Johnson. "I think Brett Lee has got a point to prove," said Marsh. "The Australian pace attack, Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and Johnson, has done well in South Africa, particularly in the Test match series. "Johnson has overshadowed Brett Lee, because Lee hasn't been there. He has basically taken on the mantle of No 1.
"Brett Lee is a very proud cricketer. He won't like that, and there is nothing wrong at all with him not liking that. "He will be peeved that he is not the No 1 and he will be giving it his all to get back to that position. That is a healthy thing for Australian cricket." The fact that Johnson and Siddle will not travel to the UAE as they are being rested ahead of the Ashes later this summer goes to show the regard in which they are now held by Australia's selectors.
The all-rounder Shane Watson, another player who is convalescing following injury, has been pencilled in to tour as a batsmen, but is expected to bowl later on in the series. Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting's understudy, will captain the side, and has his opening partner Brad Haddin as his deputy. firstname.lastname@example.org Tickets for the series are available through www.boxofficeme.com (+971) 4 367 6699 and www.timeoutdubai.com, 800 4669. Prices range from Dh50 to Dh950. Corporate hospitality packages for all three matches in Dubai are also available direct from Dubai Sports City by calling (+971) 4 425 1111.