Pakistan, on the road to rediscovery, face their toughest challenge to date in the wake of the retirements of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq when they take on England in a two-Test series starting at Lord’s on Thursday (May 24).
It’s been a little over a year since the two veteran batsmen with a combined 15,000-plus Test runs bid adieu to international cricket. Between May 14, 2017, their last day as international cricketers, and now, Pakistan have played just three Test matches under Sarfraz Ahmed. They were surprisingly routed in their adopted UAE backyard in September-October last year by Sri Lanka, themselves in the middle of a rut, and huffed and puffed to a five-wicket win in Dublin a little over a week back on Ireland’s Test debut.
Even though England are coming off humbling series defeats in Australia and New Zealand, they are an entirely different proposition in their own backyard, where James Anderson, the country’s leading Test wicket-taker, and Stuart Broad form a potent new-ball pair. Pakistan’s relatively inexperienced batting line-up will be put through a severe test of skill and character, with the onus on Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and the skipper himself to hold the side together.
Ireland had briefly exposed Pakistan’s vulnerability to pressure and the moving ball on the final day at Malahide. Set a modest 160 for victory, the visitors slumped to 14 for 3 – Mickey Arthur, the coach, cut a telling figure at the fall of the third wicket, holding his head in his hands in disbelief and anguish –before Imam-ul-Haq, the debutant, spared them the blushes with an unbeaten 74. England are unlikely to be as forgiving, especially with Joe Root himself under a little bit of a cloud after leading the side to consecutive away series losses.
England: Joe Root (capt), James Anderson, Jonny Bairstow (wk), Dom Bess, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler, Alastair Cook, Dawid Malan, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, Chris Woakes, Mark Wood.
Pakistan: Sarfraz Ahmed (capt, wk), Azhar Ali, Imam-ul-Haq, Haris Sohail, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Mohammad Amir, Mohammad Abbas, Hasan Ali, Rahat Ali, Sami Aslam, Fakhar Zaman, Saad Ali, Usman Salahuddin.
Pakistan will rely, as always, on their bowling to shore them up. On the eve of the match, they received a boost with Mohammad Amir, the left-arm quick, showing no ill-effects of the right knee injury that has dogged him since the Ireland Test. Amir, 26, has only played 31 Tests but that is a great deal more than any of the other Pakistani bowlers. Especially with Yasir Shah, the legspinner, unavailable through injury, Sarfraz will look to Amir to lead the way. With Rahat Ali less than impressive in Dublin, Hasan Ali is expected to return and lend teeth to the new-ball combine of Amir and Mohammad Abbas, who has taken 32 wickets in his six Test appearances and finished with 9 for 110 in the Irish conquest.
England will be wary of the threat Pakistan’s bowlers pose, especially after their batsmen had an underwhelming time in Australia in particular, where they were without Ben Stokes. The return of the mercurial allrounder, and the recall of Jos Buttler to shore up the middle order, should ease some of Root’s worries. Saying that, the captain will expect more from his predecessor. Apart from two knocks in the 240s, Alastair Cook has touched 40 just once in his last 21 innings. The vanguard with 154 caps and 12,028 runs under his belt, the left-hand opener will be aware of the need for consistency so that the likes of Mark Stoneman, Dawid Malan, Root, Stokes and Buttler, and Jonny Bairstow can feed off him.
There is a potential debut for Dom Bess, the offspinner who has played just 16 first-class games for Somerset. Bess was picked following a thumb injury to Jack Leach, the left-arm spinner also from Somerset, and will offer variety to a squad heavy on pace.