Ever since Fazal Mahmood ran through England to land Pakistan an improbable victory at The Oval in 1954, there has always been intrigue around encounters between England and Pakistan. The encounters, generally, have been explosive, enthralling and controversial both on and off the field.
England, of course, were expected to soundly thrash Pakistan in 1954. North India until partition in 1947, Pakistan was a new nation with no major First Class cricketing footprint at that time. If there’s one thing Pakistani cricket has never done, however, it is to non-conform with what’s expected. You make predictions about Pakistan cricket matches at your peril.
From Hanif Mohammad’s stoic batting to the bowling wonderment of Mahmood, Waqar, Imran, Saqlain and Akhtar, to the match fixing, match forfeiting and oft ineptly run cricket board, you can never accuse Pakistan of being dull.
England, too, have contributed to the controversial folklore of these encounters, from Donald Carr and his charges kidnapping and drenching Pakistani umpire Idris Baig during MCC’s 1956 tour of Pakistan, to Mike Gatting furiously remonstrating with umpire Shakoor Rana on the field, to Ian Botham declaring that he wouldn’t even send his mother-in-law to Pakistan; encounters between England and Pakistan provide much to look forward to and there is a rich rivalry.
On this occasion, the return of one Mohammad Amir has dominated the headlines. He was last seen in Test cricket deliberately bowling a no-ball at Lord’s. He’s been to prison and he’s back. His first Test since that fateful day at Lord’s six years ago will be at Lord’s. He’s come full circle in the eyes of many, a rehabilitated figure, but will doubtless encounter heckling at the hands of many.
Whatever your opinion on Amir, there is no argument on one point; fast bowling has its prodigal son back and that’s something we can all get excited about.
Amir is joined in a threatening looking bowling attack by Wahab Riaz, Sohail Khan and Yasir Shah, should Pakistan go with only four frontline bowlers, and Rahat Ali and Imran Khan waiting in the wings. They should ask some serious questions of a muddled looking English batting order.
Alastair Cook and Alex Hales will continue their opening partnership that showed signs of life and longevity during the Sri Lanka series. The middle order, however, is set for a complete reshuffle.
Joe Root is moving up to three, James Vince up to four, Gary Ballance will come in for his first Test since last summer’s Ashes series at five and Jonny Bairstow will bat at six, ahead of Moeen Ali, Chris Woakes and Stuart Broad.
Root is obviously an exceptional talent, but he has played well for England batting at four. If he has scored runs at four, why risk moving him? His talent alone, though, means that he has more than enough to be a success at three, but in his relatively short England career to date he has been bunted up and down the order and in and out of the side. If stability breeds success, Root is the exception to the rule.
Vince had a tepid start to Test cricket against Sri Lanka and Ballance last batted at three for England. Make no mistake, this middle order is there for the taking and Pakistan have the tools at their disposal to blow them away.
Add to that grave concerns about Bairstow’s wicketkeeping and you can see a side still in transition, unsure of how best to progress. There were very few top order batsmen vying for Hales’s position, no one coming through who could be trusted to bat in the top three and no top class wicketkeepeing options to consider.
A solid series against Pakistan, however, and most of the doubts about the batting will lift ahead of a tough tour of India and switch back to the lack of world class spin options. There is always something to be concerned about for the England cricket follower!
Pakistan have their own top order troubles. Shan Masood was destroyed by James Anderson on England’s visit to the UAE last year and Mohammad Hafeez has been relatively quiet in the warm ups here. Pakistan’s strength is the middle order. Azhar Ali has filled his boots at three in the warm ups, before the reassuring presences of Younis Khan, then Misbah ul-Haq arrive at the crease.
Get Pakistan five down relatively cheaply, which is not beyond this England attack, and Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed provide spikey cover for a lengthy tail. Pakistan’s middle order must deliver.
Lord’s and the first Test look Pakistan’s best opportunity to spring a surprise. England are without Anderson, so one of Jake Ball or Toby Roland-Jones will make their debut alongside an attack comprising Broad, Woakes, Steven Finn and Ali.
The pitch is a flat one for the first Test, so the threat of Finn should be nullified to a certain extent and Ali should not pose too much threat to an accomplished Pakistan batting order. As Australia discovered, though, you underestimate Ali at your peril.
From Lord’s the series goes to Manchester, Birmingham then back to London and The Oval. The last Test could provide Pakistan another opportunity to cause an upset. Conditions at Old Trafford and Edgbaston, however, should prove too alien to a side that has played only six Test matches outside Asia since June 2011. Three of those were in Zimbabwe, the other three in South Africa. They lost four of those.
This is, however, a competent Pakistan side ably led by ul-Haq. Anyone expecting an English walkover should think again. This could be a very difficult summer sign off for England before a very difficult winter schedule.
By Miles Reucroft