The teams were jostling for the No. 1 Test ranking. Now they are battling mid-table mediocrity. Alastair Cook and Misbah-ul-Haq were the captains. Now it’s Joe Root and Sarfraz Ahmed. Younis Khan was jumping around the crease (and scoring a double century). Now Pakistan are trying to build a new middle order.
It’s been less than two years since England and Pakistan last met for a Test series and much has changed. The latest series, which starts at Lord’s before continuing to Headingley, is a meeting of teams in various states of flux. England are still trying to find solutions to a number of familiar problem areas while Pakistan have lost three of their five series since taking the No. 1 spot shortly after the 2016 contest concluded with their series-levelling victory at The Oval.
Pakistan are missing three men who were vital to that 2-2 scoreline – Misbah, Younis and the injured Yasir Shah – and another, Wahab Riaz, who could have added experience if not always direction with the ball. Their batting looks on the callow side and they almost came a cropper against Ireland, with much resting on Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq finding their touch quickly in a short series.
With the ball, however, they will, as so often, remain a threat. Quite how much Test cricket Mohammad Amir will play remains to be seen but he bowled beautifully in Ireland and if his team-mates can catch he could run through a line-up. Mohammad Abbas will be a handful if there is any nibble on offer while Shadab Khan has immense promise and also the advantage of being new to England.
For England there are subplots aplenty at the beginning of a second season in charge for Root. His own position (in the batting order, not the captaincy) is one talking point – can he settle at No. 3? – which is part of a larger reshuffle of the order. Will the punt on Jos Buttler at No. 7 pay dividends or just muddy the water more? Can Dom Bess take the most of an unexpected chance? Is Mark Stoneman facing his last chance? Can Alastair Cook go again as a Test batsman? Is there life beyond James Anderson and Stuart Broad?
That’s a lot of questions. Of late, England’s Test side haven’t provided a whole lot of new answers. This season needs to change that.
In the spotlight
A quick look at those who have batted at No. 7 for any significant amount of Tests (in this case at least 10 matches) and who haven’t taken the keeping gloves shows one thing: precious few specialist batmen. Yet that is, in effect, what Jos Buttler has been selected as on his return to Test cricket. Almost a wildcard pick. There was a spare slot and this is how Ed Smith and Joe Root think it’s best filled. In a perfect world, Buttler will be able to exploit tired attacks at 350 for 5 and counter-attack thrillingly at 150 for 5. In reality, it’s unlikely to be quite so simple.
Two years ago Yasir Shah took 10 wickets in the match as Pakistan secured a famous win which led to celebratory push-ups on the outfield. Currently the only push-ups he’s doing are in the gym as he recovers from a hip injury. The legspin role is now with Shadab Khan who has shown terrific skills in white-ball cricket but is only just starting out in Tests. Yasir’s haul also came later in the year when the pitches were drier, but the recent warm weather in London could bring Shadab firmly into contest. And we all know about England and legspin.
England’s one decision is between Chris Woakes and Mark Wood for the final pace-bowling slot. Wood was recalled in Christchurch at the end of March and provides extra pace. Woakes provides more with the bat. There will be a debut for 20-year-old offspinner Dom Bess.
England 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Mark Stoneman, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Dawid Malan, 5 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 6 Ben Stokes, 7 Jos Buttler, 8 Mark Wood/Chris Woakes, 9 Dom Bess, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
Pakistan also have just a single spot to decide on: whether Rahat Ali retains his place after a wicketless outing against Ireland or he’s replaced by the skiddy pace – and extra batting ability – of Hasan Ali. Babar Azam took a blow on the finger on Tuesday but was expected to be okay.
Pakistan 1 Azhar Ali, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Haris Sohail, 4 Asad Shafiq, 5 Babar Azam, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Rahat Ali/Hasan Ali, 11 Mohammad Abbas
Pitch and conditions
The pitch had a distinct tinge of green the day before the Test, but a fair amount of that grass was likely to be removed before play starts. Last year, the surface for the South Africa Test took considerable turn although that was in July. In September there was plenty of help for the quicks when West Indies visited. The forecast for this match is for a warm few days with the chance of showers – some thundery – at various stages but also plenty of dry weather.
Stats and Trivia
Cook will equal Allan Border’s record of 153 consecutive Test appearances. The only match Cook has missed since his debut was what would have been his third Test, in Mumbai, when he was struck down by illness.
If Rahat Ali is dropped, Pakistan will have just four survivors (Azhar, Shafiq, Sarfraz and Amir) from the side that won at Lord’s in 2016