England vs Pakistan 2016: Why this is Pakistan's best chance to win a Test series outside Asia for a while
This Pakistan team looks ready, and unlike previous teams is shying away from unwanted controversy.
In cricketing terms, the recent tour of Sri Lanka to England was nothing more than a tame contest. We might also say that they were mere appetisers, and the main course is awaiting to be served. The Pakistan team is in the house and they are waiting to put the hosts through a stern test, and this by all means.
If the practice match against Somerset is anything to go by, the Pakistan team is here to play, and to win. There is a renewed sense of anticipation all around, more so because of the presence of one Mohammad Amir in the ranks. 6 years down the line, so much has happened in Pakistan cricket, well this is not something new for Pakistan, but then this is the best-prepared team to have landed in England.
The preparations have gone beyond team bonding sessions and building camaraderie. They are more focused, intense during preparations and now they look like a more disciplined outfit who know what confronts them during the tour. There is thus this prevalent feeling that this might be Pakistan's best chance to outsmart England. This will be like a redemption of sorts, not just in cricketing terms, but also will a long way to establishing the lost pride of Pakistan Cricket.
Intense preparations were done
The fact that Pakistan players do not have an IPL contract has worked in their favour. The players thus could travel to England a lot earlier which allowed them to gel together in English conditions. Without any flamboyance, bereft of any undue controversy, the team stayed together and have forged relationships, all the while planning and discussing the challenges that lie ahead. And this did yield results. In the practice match against Somerset, both the bowlers and the batsmen came out with a purpose and almost squeezed a win.
Playing red ball cricket after almost 6 months, this match gave glimpses of what the team can achieve if they play to their potential. There was no sign of rustiness and all the preparations seemed to come together.
The bowling attack
So much has been written and said about Mohammad Amir returning to the country where he shamed himself, the sport and the game, that is all added to build a thick plot when the man runs in to bowl the first ball in the first test match.
However, for all the controversy, there are few doubters about the pedigree and potential of the man. His class and ability were on full display during the practice match against Somerset. The late swing with pace troubled the top order and was a treat to watch. All this on a pitch which was flat and in conditions which did not favour seam bowling. Come to the test match, and Amir should have an extra step to his stride.
After all the controversy, after 6 years, after redeeming himself and after facing so much during this phase, this tour provides him with the opportunity to put all his focus into the game.
But as Amir will hog all the limelight, there are other bowlers in the ranks who cannot be underestimated. Sohail Khan, Wahab Riaz and Rahat Ali are match-winners on their days, both with the new ball and then back again with the old ball. And in Yasir Shah, they have another trump card up their sleeve. The leg-spinner displayed his prowess in the second innings against Somerset when he picked up 4 wickets.
The batting by all accounts is the weaker cog in the Pakistan wheel. However, if the jittery opening combination of Shan Masood and Mohammed Hafeez see out the new ball threat of England, the middle order will be in a much better state.
In Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq, Pakistan have a solid middle order which is capable of churning out the runs in any conditions. Once again, the results are a consequence of the preparations, which have been intense and concerted.
Thus, the onus now lies with the openers, and they will have to live with the fact that they will face up against one of the best bowling attacks in the world. They have the responsibility to set a platform for the stronger middle order, and with Sarfraz Ahmed coming in at number 7, Pakistan look fairly settled in the batting line-up.
The not so strong England team
Although England won the test series against Sri Lanka, there were a lot of unanswered questions. Primary among those was the indifferent form of the England batting order. Alastair Cook was not at his imperious best and unlike him did not convert many of his starts to big totals.
The form of Nick Compton was abysmal, so much so that he took an indefinite break from the game. Also, the normally reliable Joe Root was below par, and had it not been for the rescuing acts of Jonny Bairstow, the result would have been very different. In fact number 6 and 7 scored 603 runs between them all through the series, an effort which allowed the failures of the top order to be masked.
In the bowling department, it was an Anderson show all through as he picked up 21 wickets in the series. However, he is suffering from a shoulder injury and this makes himself a doubtful starter for the first test match, a massive advantage for Pakistan. Also, Ben Stokes is not entirely fit and his absence will be felt by England to a great extent.
So can Pakistan win?
Well for starters, the pitches will not be green, it may well be flat surfaces, and England will hope to out bat Pakistan. But considering the iffy batting line-up of the hosts and the in-form Pakistani bowling attack, things might not go according to plan.