Thursday May 17 2018

Not your average England vs Pakistan preview

Pakistan team all smiles after winning the Test against Ireland. Photo: Reuters 

Put your hand up if you are sick of T20 tournaments and just want to see some red-ball cricket?

Yep, me too.

The delirium of the PSL has faded and the IPL has effectively shut down cricket for the purist over the last few months.

But there’s something about the start of a new Test series that brings with it more sweaty anticipation than waiting to see if your visa application to study in the United States has been accepted.

In recent history, when Pakistan and England get together, strange, uplifting, parochial and the outright bizarre occur. It’s never England that bring these moments. It’s always Pakistan.

Whether you like it or not, the English press and the English crowds haven’t forgotten about that damning 2010 series. No-balls, this spot-fixing caper and players lending bookies their jacket. It will also be fuel for the banter fire.

Get ready for local newspaper articles that read along the lines of “Ex-Spot Fixer Amir Uses Bottle Top To Reverse Swing Pakistan To Victory”. It is just how they roll over there.

The 2012 series was played in the deserts of the UAE. Saeed Ajmal struck out more English batsmen than ever before. The scorebook looked more baseball than cricket with the K’s piling up due to his bent arm. Two years later, he would be banned for throwing and never return to the heights of being the highest-ranked spinner in the world. England left the sandpit with a 0-3 scoreline while Pakistan had created a fortress in this far-flung outpost.

That Ajmal ban opened the door for Yasir Shah in 2015. The only man in history to achieve the feat of reaching 100 Test wickets quicker than anyone else and then getting banned for taking the wrong pills. It also saw the return to Test cricket of the retired Shoaib Malik. After making a brutal 245, he subsequently retired again to focus on the earning opportunities that the white-ball tournaments provide. Pakistan 2. Draws 1. England 0.

2016 saw perhaps the best ever Test series between the two countries. Well, Pakistan is a country. England is more accurately described as a representative team encompassing England, Wales and whatever players it can entice from New Zealand, the West Indies and the African nations.

The famous Misbah salute during 2016 series 

We saw the launch of army training camps. Salutes of respect. But the most lingering memory was those pushups by men old enough to be grandfathers. We saw Younis Khan jumping around at the crease like a child on a trampoline, achieving little during the first three Tests before making a double hundred in the final match to seal a drawn series. It was the innings that arguably sealed Pakistan’s rise to the number one Test match ranking.

This series is bound to be different again. Pakistan’s Test side is not at the pinnacle of its powers. It has Mickey Arthur at the helm, Sarfraz commanding the troops and a middle-order missing Misbah, Younis and the unparalleled First Class average of Fawad Alam.

Instead, it is stuffed with the chief selector’s family and newish kids on the block.

Yasir Shah won’t be there. Another injury. Neither will Wahab Riaz. It’s hard to get selected when those that do the selecting are telling the press that you are a ridiculously lazy trainer and “haven’t won us a game in two years”.

But Shadab Khan will be as eager as Shahid Afridi chomping down on a ball. One of those many unicorns covered in gold dust that the PSL continually produces. And this is a great thing given England and leg-spin go together like Kamran Akmal and world class glovework.

Pakistan team doing pushups in England, 2016. Photo: Reuters 

All in all, there are five uncapped players. Three of them, Fakhar, Shadab and Faheem, are being deemed white-ball specialists by those that don’t understand Pakistan properly. We have to remind ourselves that Pakistan is a place that breeds only cricketers. Ones that don’t discriminate against the colour of the ball. They just perform irrespective. All three of these guys will have their moments.

Azhar Ali will need to be the rock in the batting order. Mainly because there isn’t anyone else with the exception of Asad Shafiq. But given Azhar is already a rock, and a vastly underrated one, expect him to be the leading run maker on tour.

Pakistan’s ability to see through Anderson’s first spell and Broad’s aggression will be the key. Below those two, England’s bowling attack looks about as threatening as a wet slice of bread.

Amir will hold the nation’s bowling expectations, but those expectations are misplaced. Since his return, Amir hasn’t had a season with a Test bowling average under 33. His 2017 strike rate was over 90. He is currently far from elite. His form suggests he is mediocre at best and despite his ability to swing the ball early, the numbers show that expecting him to carry the load will be a mistake.

Many are still trying to understand the selector’s infatuation with him.

Hasan Ali could be the surprise packet with the ball if he can free himself from taunting Indians at the Wagah border. English conditions reward line and length rather than simply brute strength. Therefore, his ability to place the ball in the right spots will give him an edge. He just needs an opportunity.

Either way, England’s batting depth is softer than a hug from your favourite Aunt and if Cook’s form falls away at the top of the order, Pakistan are in with a chance.

My predictions?

First player to do pushups: Fawad Alam from the stands, as a reminder to Inzi that he was the fittest guy that attended the pre-tour camp.

First player to swear into the stump mic: Sarfraz Ahmed after dropping Stuart Broad on his way to a streaky 50.

First player to grow a Wahab Riaz style moustache: No one. We’ve all learnt from that mistake.

First to be found drunk in a London nightclub: Mickey Arthur, because coaching Pakistan just does that to you.

Most wickets: Shadab Khan, and it will be the best thing you see on television all year.

Times those highlights of Pakistan’s Champions Trophy win are shown: Once a day.

Time taken until the press start speculating that Cook is about to retire: About 3 minutes into the first session of the first Test after he nicks off to Rahat Ali.

Times that the TV commentators ask Wasim Akram if James Anderson is the most skilled bowler in the world: I can’t count that high.

How long does it take you to work out that the BBC have signed Harbhajan Singh as a commentator for the series: They’ve gone and done what???? 

--Dennis Freedman is an Australian-based cricket journalist. His mediocre sense of humour is tempered by his love of Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter @DennisCricket_