England embark on a three Test series against Pakistan starting Tuesday. The odds are very much stacked against England and it will take something special; a collective team performance if England are to be victorious.
England warmed up for this series with two, two-day warm-up games against Pakistan A, who fielded a decent side. The circumstances were farcical, with England batting one day regardless of how many wickets they lost and Pakistan A batting the other day regardless of how many wickets they lost. Some players got one opportunity to bat/bowl, whilst others had two or even three opportunities across the 2 warm-ups. Anyway, that isn’t the problem. The problem is knowing what England’s best XI is for the first Test.
Essentially, 7 places are already guaranteed for the first Test, before the warm-ups started. Cook, Ali, Bell, Root, Stokes, Broad and Anderson. Rashid is pretty much a shoe-in too. Ali was fighting for the opening spot, but he is a guaranteed anyway, so Hales/Taylor/Bairstow were fighting for one batting place, Bairstow/Buttler for the wicket-keepers spot, and Wood/Finn for the third seamers spot. Finn’s injury has opened up the slot for Mark Wood.
The first warm-up was the only warm-up Cook and Root both needed to hit the ground running, with a half-century apiece. Anderson, Broad and Wood all bowled with control, although they could only find two wickets between them. Ali got the first go at opening and scored 22, before top-edging a pull shot and finding the fine leg fielder. Bell was LBW to left-arm spinner Zafar Gohar for 19, raising bigger doubts about his form. Stokes scored six, before he nicked the ball to the wicket-keeper off the off-spinner Iftikhar Ahmed. Buttler lasted three balls and went for one when he was lbw to Gohar – a familiar mode of dismissal for Buttler against spin, which is a concern given both his lack of form and apparent weakness against spin. Bairstow put himself right into contention for a Test place as he scored an unbeaten 66, while Rashid hit an unbeaten 51. With the ball, Ali took 3-41 and Rashid went wicket-less.
The second warm-up saw five changes: Hales, Taylor, Patel, Plunkett and Finn in for Cook, Root, Broad, Wood and Anderson. England spent the first day in the field. Finn ran through the Pakistan A batting line-up, taking 4-16 off 15 overs. England’s spinners Ali, Rashid and Patel took 1-44, 3-53 and 2-31 respectively. Plunkett also weighed in with two wickets of his own. The bowling went rather well. With the bat on day two, Hales and Ali opened the batting. Ali fell for seven. Hales had to make his opportunity count, but failed to do so when he fell for nine. Taylor came in and he looked comfortable from the start, easing to 45 before retiring to allow others to regain form. Bell got himself a half-century, before he also retired. Buttler failed to get valuable time in the middle when he nicked off for eight against left-arm medium Hamza. Stokes also failed to get practice in the middle as he was bowled for nought by Iftikhar Ahmed. Patel fell for eight, Bairstow went first-ball, Rashid scored two and Plunkett fell for one. England collapsed, but it would also allow some players to bat again. Hales wasn’t one of them. His failure and Taylor’s runs seemed to make Bayliss’ and Cook’s minds up. Ali, Buttler and Taylor all got another opportunity to bat. Ali added 13, Taylor added a further 16 to his 45* and Buttler got some much needed time in the middle with 32*.
Ahead of the first Test, England’s batting is a big worry apart from Cook and Root. Collapses in the warm-ups, plus in the Ashes before that is a cause for concern. England will be up against a good Pakistan bowling attack. Rahat Ali and Wahab Riaz are likely to lead the pace attack. Yasir Shah and Zulfiqur Babar will be the spinners. They aren’t quite the force Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman were, but they will still cause England very similar problems, like they’ve done to Australia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and to an extent, New Zealand.
For England, Ali will open with Cook, despite never opening in the LVCC for Worcestershire and being vulnerable to the short ball. It does allow Taylor to come in, though. Bell will remain at 3, despite a long run of poor form and struggling the last time England toured the UAE in 2012 averaging 8.50, but hopefully a half-century in the second warm-up sees Bell replicate that form in the Test series and add to his 22 Test hundreds and 45 Test fifties. Taylor is set to come in at five after runs in the warm-up. He’s a very good player against spin, so he should be an excellent addition to the side and bolster the middle-order. Stokes hasn’t hit the ground so far during this tour, and has struggled for form with the bat since the Test match at Lords against Australia, but he’s a dangerous batsman at six and possesses enormous potential. England are desperate to have Buttler in the side, and there’s good reason why, given his talent and scoring five fifties in his first 12 Test innings, but still showing poor form in the warm-ups after a poor Ashes series may now go against him, with Bairstow coming in.
The bowling was a less of a worry in the warm-ups, but it will be extremely tough work in these conditions against a Pakistan line-up who consistently score big in the UAE, in particular – Mohammad Hafeez (averages 49.86 with 2 hundreds, but he is susceptible against swing), Azhar Ali (averages 54 with 5 hundreds, but he’s missing the first Test), Younis Khan (averages 54 with 9 hundreds and scored 3 consecutive hundreds against Australia, including a double-hundred), Misbah ul-Haq (averages 61 with 5 hundreds) and Sarfraz Ahmed (averages 59.75 with 2 hundreds).
Anderson and Broad lead from the front the last time England were in the UAE, with Anderson taking nine wickets at 27.66 and Broad taking 13 wickets at 20.46, and they will need to do the same this time, or better, as England have decent spinners in Ali and Rashid now, not world-class spinners in Swann and Panesar to rely on like last time. The third seamers spot will be a very close call. Wood’s skiddy bowling, ability to bowl reverse swing and useful lower-order batting puts him right in contention, but Finn’s 4-16 in the warm-up and his usual nack of taking wickets would have put him close to selection, and likely given him the nod, if not for injury ruling him out of the Test. Wickets are the key. England have a fifth bowler this time in Ben Stokes, plus Joe Root can bowl useful off-spin, so the workloads of the bowlers can be managed well, and it gives Cook more options in the match.
Likely England Test XI: 1. Cook*, 2. Ali, 3. Bell, 4. Root, 5. Taylor, 6. Stokes, 7. Bairstow+, 8. Rashid, 9. Broad, 10. Wood, 11. Anderson.
My prediction for the series: Pakistan 2-1 England. Top run-scorer – Younis Khan. Top wicket-taker – Yasir Shah. I can’t see England winning the series. I feel that England’s collapses (which date back to the WI tour), some batsmen still being out of form and our pace attack usually lacking penetration on flat wickets will cost England. I do see England winning one Test, where we take early wickets and our batting clicks, but not throughout the series.
Let’s hope I’m wrong and most England fans/pundits/journalists are wrong, and we can surprise everyone by winning the series. It’s a long shot, but not impossible, if our senior players stand up and perform consistently.