England may have won The Ashes and, owing to the myopic nature of English cricket, that is sufficient in many eyes to deem the garden of English cricket as being awash with roses. It is not. A rude awakening looms large in the form of a trip to face Pakistan in their adopted home in the UAE.
The last time England visited the UAE, back in January and February 2012, they visited as the number one ranked team in the world. They were dispatched with tails firmly between legs, 3-0. In hindsight, it was where the first cracks in Andy Flower’s tenure as England coach appeared. Going into the first Test, England fielded only one spinner in Graeme Swann, demanding back breaking work be done by the seamers in the sapping heat of the desert.
Monty Panesar was swiftly brought in and shone in the second Test, but facing a chase of 145 to win the match, England fell apart as they looked to nudge and nurdle their way to victory. Abdur Rehman twirled England in knots with 6/25 as they fell for 72.
Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Mohammad Hafeez, Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq were the top five run scorers in the series. They all remain. Of the England contingent returning, there are no happy memories amongst the batsmen. Alastair Cook was the top scorer amongst the returnees, with 159 runs at an average of 26.50. No Englishman registered a century. Ian Bell scored 51 runs at 8.50. After an unconvincing few months, he can’t be looking forward to the trip.
England’s batting order appears to be in a state of great confusion. It is an early challenge for Trevor Bayliss to address as head coach. He will be grateful for The Ashes series win in buying him some time. He will be well aware, however, that trips to the UAE and then to South Africa will test his new side to the limit. He has to hope it doesn’t break.
Cook is the one assured spot atop the order. Adam Lyth has been discarded as his opening partner and the identity of his new partner remains to be seen. Moeen Ali, who has been selected as England’s frontline spinner for the past 18 months, could fill in on a horses for courses basis in the UAE. He would surely have to be dropped back down against South Africa’s attack, though, owing to his problems against short bowling.
This leaves the door open for Alex Hales to make his Test debut. Again, however, concerns against the short stuff mean that there are justified reservations looking ahead to South Africa.
So, could Zafar Ansari make a surprise debut? The Surrey opener has had a good season in a promotion winning year for his County. That has been, however, in Division 2. His 44 wickets with his left arm spin give him an edge over Hales and his obdurate style – he’s not a modern top order dasher – was evidently lacking from England’s batting this summer, with Lyth having a waft at anything outside off stump.
So that’s three options to open. What about number three? Bell briefly considered retirement upon the conclusion of The Ashes, but he has hardly cemented his spot. James Taylor, hugely impressive in the recent ODI series against Australia, is ready and waiting; perhaps, even, deserving?
Joe Root is the other set in stone player in the batting order. He will certainly come in at four and he will likely find himself having to rebuild England’s innings more often than not. If Pakistan find a way of neutering him, they will win the series 3-0 again. No pressure, Joe.
At five, Jonny Bairstow remains an unconvincing option. He may prosper against spin, but what of the challenges ahead? He should get the nod at five to begin with, but a tough series will mean some tough decisions going forward. His best bet, long term, may be as wicket keeper, where Jos Buttler has flattered to deceive as the keeper/batsman.
Buttler was ‘rested’ for the final three games of the Australia ODI series, but the stats lay bare a poor summer. Bar an ODI century against New Zealand, there has been nothing with the bat from a man widely feted with tags such as ‘genius’. His international career, which started on the ODI leg of England’s last tour of the UAE in 2012, has yielded two ODI centuries. That’s a poor return from such an obviously talented player. Talent counts for nothing if you don’t score any runs, though.
Buttler will start the Pakistan series batting at seven, ahead of Ben Stokes. Stokes has been a revelation; a tough competitor, a superb fielder, a useful fifth bowler and a sometimes destructive batsman. With players such as Stokes you have to accept the rough with the smooth. He will have off days and his summer was somewhat bipolar. His three Ashes ducks was a record by an Englishman in a five Test series, whereas his Century at Lord’s against New Zealand single single-handedly set the tone for the summer, not to mention that catch at Trent Bridge.
I doubt his bowling will be suited to the conditions here, nor his batting against world class spin. It could be a series that definitively proves that patience will be a virtue in regards to Stokes.
Then what of Adil Rashid? He will surely have to play, although he is commensurate with the bits and pieces approach of England. He’s not a Test level batsman and he’s not a Test level bowler, but needs must.
On the bowling front, James Anderson and Stuart Broad equipped themselves well on the last tour. They had, however, world class support in the spin department courtesy of Swann and Panesar. Now, they have very little to fall back on. Ali, Rashid and Ansari whilst useful bowlers, will not unduly trouble the Pakistani batsmen. There will be no brainless charges down the track in a macho attempt to ‘assert dominance’ over them here. They will simply be milked. A spin bowling attack of, likely, Ali, Rashid and Root is laughable in these conditions, but England have no other options.
Pakistan have Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar, two world class spinners. They may have lost Saeed Ajmal to an illegal action and Rehman to a bizarre case of the yips that he hasn’t come back from as the same player, but Pakistan were able to dive into their domestic scene and pluck these two out. What England would give for such spinning resources!
The necessity to field two spinners will mean that England’s attack will feature Anderson, Broad and Stokes as the seam options. Mark Wood and Steven Finn may feature later in the series, but Anderson still appears the vital cog in the seam machine.
Pakistan’s Junaid Khan and Wahab Riaz have been short on form of late, but offer, on their day at least, real pace and reverse swing bowling. If they don’t get you, Shah and Babar will.
It could well be a chastening series for England. If they have questions going into it, they could well be facing more coming out of it. These are interesting and exciting times; there is a real belief around English cricket on the back of an Ashes win, but they have won only two series since the summer of 2013. They may well have to survive the next eight to 10 months in a state of flux.
But, you know, they won The Ashes.
By Miles Reucroft
If you need a reminder of how bad England were in the UAE in 2012, refresh your memory here!