Momentum and consistency are fleeting virtues in Test cricket, yet, as England’s Test side has shown, you needn’t have a team of world beaters to achieve them.
Their series triumph against a hapless Sri Lankan side – who showed few glimpses of proficiency in an otherwise ill-fated affair – capped off a stellar 12 months of Test cricket for a rejuvenated, dogged English side that has risen proudly from the ashes of a cataclysmic derailment just two years ago.
The idyllic state of English cricket has extinguished the markedly universal fan divisiveness born of declining form, bringing about aspirations of a return to the helm of the ICC Test rankings.
But Pakistan’s much-eulogised side – when not the subject of a corruption schmooze – might well spoil the English party.
They travel to England this summer in fine fettle and with an air of mystique surrounding their performances whenever and wherever they venture outside of Asia – which has occurred on just six occasions since 2011.
Not since the now-botched tour of 2010 have Pakistan experienced English conditions, and the unpredictable swing and seam of the Duke ball. During that time, Pakistan’s evergreen, fearless leader Misbah-ul-Haq has tossed away the conservative script – with it, Pakistan’s tainted past – to re-engineer a side in dire straits.
The prognosticated destroyers of England’s volatile and ‘fragile’ middle order – the latter being a cobbled summation of Wahab Riaz’s prose describing England’s batting following a tour game – are Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah.
The former has successfully negotiated a considerable number of rehabilitation hurdles to clamber his way back into the hearts of Pakistan adherents and the minds of English batsmen.
His wide of the crease in-swinger and bouncer, have, if the tour match against Somerset is a suitable means for appraisal, improved out of sight since we last saw him as a shabby haired, impressionable, morally impaired 18-year-old. That’s some feat, given much of the period spent away from the game was under lock and key in a place unfamiliar with even the most reprehensible adaptation of cricket.
The latter is a 30-something leg-break exponent whose Test career, while yet to reach a crescendo, is making waves on the international scene. His participation and influence will go unheeded though if he is unable to extract turn from the mid-summer green seamers he is presented with across the four Tests.
He was the leading wicket-taker in dissimilar, spin-friendly conditions in the UAE against England last October. If he can channel this form, and put into practice his recently revamped googly, he shapes as the series’ chief wicket-taker.
The discernable similarities of the two bowling cartels is an oddity that has made itself scarce in this current decade. Yet, herein lies perhaps the most mouthwatering, decisive battle of the four-match series.
England’s seamers will come into the series high on confidence, having finished off the battered carcass of Sri Lanka in a series where just one touring batsman managed to bat beyond a hundred.
But Pakistan’s street-smart batsmen are a different kettle of fish. Their level-headed middle order, led by the guile of Misbah and accompanied by the eccentric, yet immaculately honed strokeplay of Younis Khan, are bound to prosper no matter how well England’s bowlers execute their discipline.
Their spin-orientated batting line-up mightn’t be the most qualified to cope with the Lord’s slope or an Edgbaston green top, but you can sure as hell expect their tenacity and wristy homegrown techniques – perfected on the slowest wickets the world over – to grind out a great profusion of runs on a regular basis throughout the series.
On the other side of the ledger is an English batting unit struggling for any real consistency. All the signs of a developing fissure in the middle order were there against Sri Lanka’s bowlers, who – bearing little more ammunition than a glorified county attack – proceeded to routinely take the outside edge and batter the front pad of England’s premier batsmen. With the exception of a Moeen Ali hundred at Durham, England’s scores were inflated by the blistering form and twin centuries of Yorkshire’s Johnny Bairstow.
There is a stark contrast between the textbook, forward defence of England’s 10,000-run custodian Alastair Cook, and the gung-ho merchants of Pakistan’s lower order. But this series will seek to prove that application and monotony at the batting crease are reserved for the faint hearted and unadapted in this day and age.
England’s unrushed, more considered stroke play will be required to match the ingenuity of Sarfraz Ahmed and Asad Shafiq operating at full throttle – an eccentric style of play that keeps the scoreboard ticking over with vigor.
England’s one saving grace, Ben Stokes, whose Cape Town double century is an example of this enigmatic style, will be absent from the XI at Lord’s, leaving a significant void in the English middle order.
Is this England’s most settled side in recent history, or are they the most gettable outfit in world cricket? This series will give us an indication.