Another chastening winter done, another hopeful summer on the way – welcome back to the England Test cricket see-saw.
To a background of boardroom farce and clunkily inept public statements, the international summer has arrived in England, the curtain-raiser a showdown with Pakistan at Lord’s starting this Thursday.
The last time these sides met at cricket’s spiritual home it was Pakistan who ran out winners, a victory extravagantly and amusingly celebrated with a team display of press ups on the Lord’s outfield.
Those though were very different times, the last days of Misbah that saw Pakistan climb to the top of the Test rankings, now they return, retirements having shorn them of both their talismanic captain, and their leading Test run scorer Younis Khan, with injury also ruling out the man who won them that game two years ago, Yasir Shah.
England on the other hand are not all that far from where they were then, still frustratingly inconsistent – except away from home where they have just been consistently bad – still yet to settle on a solid opening partnership, still hoping to find some sort of backbone in their middle order, still comfortable favourites in home conditions.
Pakistan arrive with one Test match already under their belts, their topsy-turvy clash with new boys Ireland that almost got away from them but did ultimately end in their success. However while that game might have served as a nice tune up for the tourists, it also showed that they clearly have a few weaknesses.
Chief among these is the strength of their batting. The batting collapse has often been something of a Pakistani speciality, and without the twin colossi of Misbah and Younis, and with the strength of England’s bowling in home conditions, getting consistent runs from their line up will be their biggest concern.
In an inexperienced side much of the responsibility for runs will fall on the shoulders of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, while an upturn in form from captain Sarfraz Ahmed would also be timely. However in his brief debut showing against Ireland, Imam-ul-Haq started to show that he has been picked for his talent, not just because his uncle is chief selector, while in Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf, Pakistan have two genuine and promising all-rounders.
With their batting having the potential to be on the flaky side, bowling is undoubtedly Pakistan’s stronger suit and while the fitness of Mohammad Amir remains a concern, he is a potent threat nevertheless and with the support of Mohammad Abbas and an Ali, be it Rahat or Hasan, the tourists have a triumvirate to fear, with Faheem a useful D’Artagnan backing up those three musketeers.
The loss of Yasir is a blow, but it does at least give them a chance to properly blood Shadab in unfamiliar conditions and it will be intriguing to see how he gets on. He is undoubtedly a cricketer of huge promise, who has adapted very quickly to each new level of cricket he has been introduced to, to the extent that you have to remember he is still only 19.
England meanwhile appear once again to be at the start of a new era – for those of you struggling to keep score this seems to happen pretty much at the start of every season – this time the fresh start comes via the introduction of Ed Smith as the new national selector.
However for all the cynicism, there is a hope that England might be about to turn a corner in their development – the decision to move Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow up to three and five in the batting order respectively is well overdue and should hopefully strengthen the recently disastrous middle order.
Meanwhile the reintroduction of Jos Buttler to the wilds of Test cricket is an exciting move. Thanks to Ben Stokes batting in the top six, England can enjoy the benefits of a ‘luxury pick’ at number seven in their order and have opted to use it in about the most interesting way possible, the prospect of an unshackled Buttler remains a fearsome one.
One man who may feel a little fortunate to still be in the side is Mark Stoneman, who has endured a miserable start to the County Championship season but who impressed those who mattered sufficiently during England’s difficult winter. This series promises to be make or break for his international ambitions.
On the bowling front England fans will probably be feeling a little more secure in the state of things, with the ever-reliable James Anderson and an in-form Stuart Broad still leading the attack they remain a potent force particularly in early season conditions. The final seamer’s spot will come down to a straight shoot out between Chris Woakes and Mark Wood, the pair perhaps expecting to play a Test each in this two-match series with Pakistan, with Wood thought to be slightly ahead in the race to play at Lord’s.
In the spin bowling department, England will play their second Somerset debutant in as many games, the injury to Jack Leach handing Dom Bess his first taste of international cricket. The 20-year-old has impressed those in the England hierarchy and while spin probably isn’t expected to have too much of a bearing on the outcome of this Test, he is a accomplished fielder and decent enough lower order batsman – it will be intriguing to see how he gets on.
England then will start as firm favourites for this series, but as last year’s Champions Trophy semi-final will have taught them, you underestimate Pakistan at your own peril, can the predictably unpredictable upset things once again? We don’t have to wait much longer to find out.