Recent series against Pakistan in England have unfolded as if scripted by Roald Dahl with unexpected and ugly twists and turns beyond imagination. This time the hope and expectation is that the cricket will dominate attention.
In a damp start to the summer the Sri Lanka series came and went without diverting the attention of any but the committed fan. There is scope for this series to be much more compelling and far-reaching.
In one department at least Pakistan should be able to equal or surpass England, especially if the Duke ball swings in a humid July. England head to Lord’s on Thursday without their two best swing bowlers – Jimmy Anderson and Ben Stokes are sidelined with the latter’s batting prowess insufficient to win him a place in the team (probably not a source of debate in the case of the former).
Meanwhile, the early signs are that Pakistan possess a potent, aggressive bowling attack who can exploit swinging conditions. Their two best bowlers, Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah, are taking a break at Hove in the final warm-up game. They can conserve their energy as well as allowing the management to establish the two other bowlers who will join them in the Test team. The likeliest combination might be Sohail Khan, a beanpole seamer, and Wahab Riaz, the mercurial tearaway, who generally gets up batsmen’s noses. Rahat Ali and Imran Khan may have different ideas.
Amir took four wickets in Pakistan’s first game at Taunton, not a massive number but the manner in which he defeated batsmen will not have gone unnoticed in the England camp. It was not a matter of him merely overcoming callow county opponents ( that description hardly fits Marcus Trescothick or Peter Trego). He bowled deliveries that the best Test players would have struggled to combat.
There was late swing at pace to find the edge of Trescothick’s bat and to send Trego’s middle stump into orbit. Amir bowled over and round the wicket with equal facility and, with a neat short haircut replacing the mop of black hair of six years ago, he looked utterly determined to come back to Test cricket in style. Any suggestion that his colleagues are reluctant to welcome him back has long since disappeared.
With three aggressive pacemen plus Yasir, the best wrist-spinner around, Pakistan will pose many more problems than Sri Lanka. Potentially, they can exploit helpful conditions as well as England but, if the sun is out and the pitch is flat, which is often the case at Lord’s, then Yasir can threaten especially if there are runs in the bank. One problem for Misbah-ul-Haq in these conditions is that the balance of his side allows him only four bowlers.
By their own admission scoring sufficient runs is of greater concern. The Test venues may help them here, especially those in London. Runs are seldom scarce at Lord’s and The Oval now often provides turgid tracks that can eventually encourage spinners.
Pakistan are trusting in their veterans for runs. Five of their top six are over 30. Misbah is 42 yet still inexperienced in English conditions; Younis Khan is the most effervescent of 38-year-olds; Mohammad Hafeez, the opening batsman, who is no longer allowed to bowl his off-breaks, is 35. Against such venerable batsmen the first port of call is to summon a fast bowler and to check that the old reflexes of those holding the bat are still in order. There should be a reluctance to bowl spin at Misbah at any time.
It is not the worst time to play England, despite their recent successes. Two important injuries and one withdrawal/dropping (it was odd that the ECB’s press release did not even mention the absence of Nick Compton) signal a reshuffle. The selectors sprang a surprise and may be more potent than some predecessors. Trevor Bayliss had volunteered the virtues of Stokes (as a batsman) and Jos Buttler but neither is in the squad. Perhaps Bayliss listens to his chairman of selectors more readily than say, Duncan Fletcher, who sometimes used to refer to David Graveney as no more than “the convenor”.
We can, however, detect Bayliss’s influence in the decision to move Joe Root to No3. It reflects an antipodean outlook. In England there is the temptation to think: “Well, he is getting runs at four [though not many this summer] so we’d better leave him there.” The alternative, which is to be applauded, is to acknowledge that Root is the best player and he used to open the batting, so he is now the No3 who can dictate the flow of the game.
Perhaps Gary Ballance’s century at Scarborough against Middlesex clinched his place at a time when Scott Borthwick of Durham ran out of runs or even opportunities to score them. The selectors have always rated Ballance but they have had to wait a while for a bit of evidence to pick him.
England are bound to have a debutant at Lord’s because either Jake Ball or Toby Roland-Jones, another who enjoyed timely success at Scarborough, will play. Ball has been a regular in Test squads this summer and is therefore the likeliest man to receive his cap but Lord’s is Roland-Jones’s home ground – he knows where to mark the end of his run, which is a very long way from the stumps. Neither Ball, Roland-Jones or Ballance is currently an ODI cricketer. It may be that the selectors are actively keen to separate the personnel playing red- and white-ball cricket whenever possible.
Pakistan may be encouraged by the enforced changes to the England team. Usually touring sides are reckoned to be at their most vulnerable in the first Test but that may not be the case this time. Pakistan have been here for almost a month while England are readjusting. There might be another unexpected tale around the corner.