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One of our esteemed forum members looks ahead to the England-Pakistan series, and considers the hosts' weak links that can be targeted.

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by Muhammad Bilal Badar (30th June 2016)

Starting July 14th, the cornered tigers of Pakistan will be taking on the lions of England in a Test series that is sure to be an exciting one for cricket viewers everywhere. The first match takes place on the hallowed ground of Lord’s, the Mecca of Test cricket. England have lost two successive Test series to Pakistan, in the UAE, and will no doubt be aiming to avenge those defeats. While Pakistan will want to prove to one and all that they have the quality and the mental-strength needed to beat a top team away from their (adopted) home.

Pakistan’s tours to England have unfortunately been more noteworthy for off-field shenanigans than on-field performances at times, which is quite the pity. Whether it be the English media mistaking reverse-swing for ball-tampering or Inzamam-ul-Haq leading his boys off the field in protest to tampering allegations by umpires or even the spot-fixing scandal of 2010, something about the Pakistani cricket team in England creates controversy. Hopefully this time around, the cricket will steal all the headlines.

Where we stand

One look at the scorecard of the first Test that these two teams played in 2010, reveals that the current Pakistani side is a stronger unit. Umar Amin, Umar Akmal, Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal were all middling Test players at best, and the likes of Mohammad Yousuf and Danish Kaneria were past their prime when that Test series took place. None of them are representing Pakistan this time around and their replacements have undoubtedly made the team stronger.

Younis Khan is a proud performer, a master batsman and his constant need for praise and approval powers his continued climb up the ranks of the greatest batsmen in history. His younger team-mates, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, have played invaluable hands in a large number of matches ever since they were given a chance at the highest level. The captain, Misbah, is a capable batsman himself, frustrating fans of Pakistan and of the opposition due to his almost metronomic ability to churn out fifties… And then throwing his wicket away.

These four are preceded by a pair of typically frail openers and succeeded by an explosive keeper-batsman, Sarfaraz Ahmed. As long as the openers - who could be any two of Mohammad Hafeez, Shan Masood and Sami Aslam, depending on the fitness of Hafeez and the trust that the management has on Aslam - are able to hold off the new-ball assault that Stuart Broad and co. will skillfully launch, there is a good chance that numbers 3-7 will nudge and nurdle, and drive and block, and sweep and reverse-sweep their way to a respectable, if not imposing, total. 

Yasir Shah, meanwhile, is the best wrist-spinner currently employed in his field and will no doubt tap into the darkest of English nightmares that feature a slightly chubby, Australian leggie bowling them around their legs, while engaging them in a lot of sledging. The English pitches this time of the year are surprisingly helpful to spinners, especially during the fourth innings, and will offer Shah considerable assistance.

One aspect of the current team that is far weaker than of their predecessors is swing/seam bowling. Mohammad Amir is a class act and has all the tools that one needs to become the best bowler in the world but Rahat Ali, Sohail Khan and Imran Khan combined cannot match the almost magical bowling prowess that Mohammad Asif, arguably the best swing and seam bowler in the world back in 2010, could provide. The pacers will also be bowling with a Duke ball, something that they are not normally used to. However, pace bowling has hardly ever let Pakistan down and that is expected to hold true for this series as well.

More importantly perhaps, is the fact that the Pakistani side today is in a much better place mentally and emotionally than their most recent predecessors were. They are led by a captain who is criticized by his fellow countrymen and praised by outsiders for being a thoroughly decent, professional character, devoid of the superstar ego and superstar antics that were a staple of past Pakistani leaders. The other players in the squad are either too old and dignified to act like divas (the average age of the squad is 30 years) or have too much on the line to do so. Despite the amount of sympathy that Mohammad Amir has received from fans, team-mates and opponents alike, the cricketing world is unlikely to see him become lax in his effort to have the fixing stain erased off his person. The fact that he now bowls from a foot behind the bowling crease shows how serious he is about his rehabilitation. The exclusion of the aforementioned Asif, and tainted former captain, Salman Butt, also helps in keeping this team free from controversy.

Apart from a few outbursts by Younis Khan, the Test side has for once not resembled a cricketing parody of Game of Thrones. There has been no falling-out between best buddies, no groupings being formed on the basis of regional ties, no rebellions against the people in power and no news of any old men trying to pit two fan-favourites against one another. It has instead been a very boring few years under Misbah’s leadership, as far as changing-room drama and politics is concerned.

Joining him in the planning room is new coach, Mickey Arthur. After the events of homework-gate - A topic he gets asked about so often that one wouldn’t blame him for feeling a little nostalgic about his school-years – he has a huge fight on his hands to prove that his strict coaching methods, that are uncompromising on discipline, still have a place in the cricketing environment of 2016. It will be interesting to see what changes, if any, Arthur brings to this Pakistani side that, for all its commendable qualities, has been quite poor in the fitness and fielding departments. Every single player who was picked to take part in the Army boot camp a few weeks ago failed to successfully complete the initial fitness Tests and Yasir Shah had turned up at the subsequent skills camp two days late, but instead of apologizing, he reportedly justified his actions by reiterating that he was only two days late.

Lest we forget during the course of this already lengthy commentary on the Pakistani side, their opponents are England. The same England that have recently defeated South Africa, in South Africa, and demolished Sri Lanka on their home turf. It goes without saying that the English start as the favourites in this series and that if Pakistan are to defeat them, they will have to dig deep and play better than they ever have over the last decade. England are well-managed, well-trained and in-form. They have world-class seamers like James Anderson and Stuart Broad along with world-class batsmen like captain, Alistair Cook, and star player, Joe Root. There are however, a few chinks in this top side and exploiting these chinks will be crucial if the Pakistani players are serious about giving their countrymen a little extra reason to amp up the festivities, this 14th August.

The Weak Links:

  • James Vince – Vince is a very pretty batsman to watch. He is the type of batter that children try to replicate and adults lie about being able to replicate. His only problem thus far, has been a very annoying habit of not scoring many runs. That, it goes without saying, is not at all good since scoring runs is why he was brought into the side. Perhaps it’s just a confidence issue, perhaps it’s the fact that scoring heaps of runs in Division II cricket in England, the basis for his selection, is a lot easier than scoring runs at the international level and that Vince still has a lot to learn. Regardless of the reasons, England’s #5 (or #6 depending on whether Bairstow is given a promotion or not) is one man that Pakistan should definitely target.
  • Moeen Ali – Despite scoring a magnificent 150 only recently, Moeen Ali still hasn’t fully overcome his struggles against the short-ball. That and a lack of consistency will ensure that Misbah will hand the ball to Wahab Riaz, who has made a name for himself as someone who bowls fast and bowls wicked. Getting Ali out early is important however, because he can be a dangerous batsman when set. With the ball in hand, Moeen Ali will not be a threat to the Pakistani batsmen. He was handled with ease in the UAE, the venue of these two teams’ last encounter, and is most likely to be the fifth and a defensive bowling option for Cook. Pakistan should be looking to get as many runs as they can off him since he is a far easier proposition than some of the other English bowlers.
  • Whoever England’s #3 is – Will it be Bairstow? Will it be Root? Is the Bell tolling? Or will it be another young talent from the county scene? Whoever it may be, the player in question will undoubtedly be under pressure. England haven’t had a set, world-class one-down batsman ever since Jonathon Trott’s fall from grace and the Pakistani pacers, Mohammad Amir in particular, need to ensure that they don’t have one by the end of this series.

In many ways this series will be a defining one for many. It will define the legacy of Misbah and his team, all that they have accomplished and learned will be put on the Test when they jog onto those historic, English grounds. It will define Vince and Ali and either secure or damage their standing in the eyes of the selectors and it will define Mickey Arthur, he’s either going to be the coach that was wronged by the Aussies or the coach that wronged the Aussies and the Pakistanis. This is also a series that will define Test cricket in 2016. With calls for a two-tier system vibrating from all sides, another one-sided whitewash plagued by rain-stoppages and poor crowd turn-outs will not at all be helpful to this great game. This is a series that Test cricket needed; Pakistan are ranked as the third-best side in the world, England are just behind them. An exciting, quality-filled month of Test cricket will quieten the critics and repay the fans - it’s about time something like that happened.

 Discuss!