MANCHESTER: England know another sluggish start to a Test campaign could prove costly as they go in search of a first series win over Pakistan in a decade.
Wednesday sees an intriguing three-match contest get underway with the first Test at Old Trafford.
And while England can point to recent series victories over most of their rivals, their last such success against Pakistan was back in 2010.
That campaign, however, was overshadowed by a ‘spot-fixing’ scandal at Lord’s which led to bans and jail terms for then Pakistan captain Salman Butt as well as pacemen Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir.
England have lost the first Test in eight of their last 10 series —including during last month’s 2-1 win over the West Indies that marked international cricket’s return from the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) lockdown.
Home side will assess whether Stokes is fit to bowl
Both of Pakistan’s past two series in England — 2016 and 2018 — ended in draws, which should encourage the tourists this time even though they go into the first Test on the back of just a couple of intra-squad warm-up fixtures compared to their ‘match-hardened’ hosts.
“We’ve had good preparations and team bonding,” said Pakistan head coach Misbah-ul-Haq.
“Still we feel there is always a slight nervousness when you just play Test cricket after a long, long time [away],” he added ahead of his side’s first Test in six months. “We’re aware that England have a slight advantage, but if we’re alert and go 100% in the first Test, that’s the only way we can beat England … otherwise we will find ourselves in difficulty.”
England, meanwhile, will assess whether Ben Stokes is fit to bowl before naming their team for the series opener.
Stokes played as a specialist batsman in the series-sealing win over West Indies last month with a quad injury preventing him from bowling.
Captain Joe Root said a decision is likely to made on Wednesday morning.
Stokes bowled at training on Monday but rain in Manchester meant he was unable to do the same on Tuesday.
“We still need to know a little bit more about where Ben’s at. Unfortunately because of the weather [on Tuesday] he wasn’t able to bowl outside so we will probably have to wait on that throughout tonight and make a decision in the morning,” Root told reporters. “Ben is so committed to the team that he will always put his body on the line but the more he has played the more mature he has got.
“He has got better at understanding there are limitations to what he can do sometimes — even though those limitations are further for him than a lot of other players.
“He knows how important he is within our group. He is getting better at looking after himself and it is important we look after him as well.
“What we have got with this squad of players is a number of different options we can go down. We have everything to cover the conditions and the pitch. Whatever that throws at us, we think we will have an answer.”
England played seamers Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Chris Woakes and Jofra Archer in the final Test against West Indies, alongside spinner Dom Bess, with batsman Zak Crawley dropping out of the XI.
Crawley, paceman Mark Wood and all-rounder Sam Curran remain in England’s unchanged 14-man squad for the first of three behind-closed-doors Tests against Pakistan.
Speaking on England’s wealth of options, Root — who confirmed Stuart Broad will play — added: “It’s a fantastic position [to be in]. We were forced into making a slight change in balance of the side in the last game with Ben unable to bowl and we saw how well that worked, so to know we have had success with it will give everyone confidence.
“Ben doing everything he can do is huge for the team — it shows how pivotal he is in terms of balancing the side — but if he is not fit we have other ways to go and a number of guys who have put in fantastic performances, especially our seamers.
“I couldn’t be happier to have so many headaches and for us as a side to have strength in depth in a number of areas, so long may it continue.”
Misbah accepted that how his batsmen coped with the experienced pair of Anderson and Broad — who now both have more than 500 Test wickets each after Broad reached the landmark against the West Indies — would go a long way to determining the outcome of the series.
But the former Pakistan captain was also excited by a pace attack that includes the youthful promise of teenage rising star Naseem Shah as well as the accurate Mohammad Abbas,and towering left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Naseem has impressed Pakistan fast-bowling great turned bowling Waqar Younis and Misbah so much when they saw him in action in Lahore, the coach said they had no qualms about fast-tracking a ‘complete bowler’ into Pakistan’s side in Australia last year.
Naseem became the youngest bowler to take a Test hat-trick against Bangladesh in February and he showed a liking for English conditions with 10 wickets in the two practice matches at Derby.
“He is one who could win a Test match on his own,” said Misbah of Naseem.
Pakistan, however, could still deploy two spinners at Old Trafford in Yasir Shah and Shadab Khan.
The West Indies failed to post a single individual century in their recent series. Pakistan will hope the likes of Abid Ali, the first man to score a hundred on both Test and One-day International debut, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam and Asad Shafiq can provide the runs they need.
ENGLAND: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Root (captain), Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Dom Bess, Jofra Acher, Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Sam Curran, Zak Crawley, Mark Wood.
PAKISTAN: Shan Masood, Abid Ali, Azhar Ali (captain), Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Mohammad Rizwan, Shadab Khan, Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah, Sohail Khan, Fawad Alam, Kashif Bhatti, Sarfaraz Ahmed, Imam-ul-Haq.
Umpires: Richard Kettleborough (England) and Richard Illingworth (England).
TV umpire: Michael Gough (England).
Match referee: Chris Broad (England).