Without a doubt England are the favourites, but can they take Pakistan lightly?
“Nobody was rating us and everyone was thinking that it will be difficult for this team to win any match.”
Pakistan’s ODI skipper, Sarfraz Ahmed, had said after Pakistan’s Champions Trophy win that took all and sundry by surprise. But it was Pakistan. They were meant to be unpredictable. It didn’t matter that they were the last team to qualify for the tournament and perhaps the least fancied of teams to qualify to the semis, lest win the Trophy.
That is what Pakistan does and is known to do. They might just have the worst of days and turn up the next day like a team of world-beaters. This is exactly why Pakistan’s embarrassing win over Ireland recently in the latter’s debut Test match shouldn’t be a benchmark for England to judge the team they will be facing for the next one month.
Make no mistake. Pakistan were struggling, almost crawling towards victory against a team that had only dipped its feet in the vast oceans of Test cricket. But scroll an innings back and Pakistan were actually dominating the game with a huge lead after batting decently and then bowling Ireland out for 130. Definitely not something worth bragging about, but it just shows how unpredictable this side can be.
The last time Pakistan toured England for Tests, back in 2016, they levelled the series 2-2. Even then, with the likes of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq present, Pakistan weren’t the scariest squad. However, as has been the case always, they found ways to strive and stay in contention. This time around their biggest drawback will be lack of experience but are England truly indomitable? Not really.
What works in favour of Pakistan
With a young brigade at the forefront, Pakistan’s best chance against England is to pierce them where it hurts – their fragile top-order. With a less than fancied top order, brought together by Joe Root and Johnny Bairstow, Pakistan need to aim to target the top order.
If they have England 3-4 wickets down early, a resurrection might not prove that easy particularly with Pakistan boasting of a smart leggie in Shadab Khan. Ben Stokes, Johnny Bairstow and Chris Woakes rule a power-packed lower middle-order and this could prove to be the difference between the two teams unless the real Pakistan fails to turn up.
To go back to their victory in 2016 at The Oval, what worked for Pakistan was putting up a daunting total on board. Younis Khan’s double-hundred played a huge role in this but it isn’t like Pakistan don’t have the batsmen to hurt England.
As much as it is vital for them to bowl well up front and pick wickets with the new ball, it is crucial that Pakistan string together useful partnerships. Individual brilliance might win them a session or a day at max, but for them to trump England at home, they need a collective show.
The poor prelude and factors that can be ignored
Obviously, Pakistan do not arrive with the best of form behind them. Aside from the loss to Ireland, they struggled to pick wickets against a lacklustre Leicestershire line-up over the weekend. That a batsman like Ateeq Javid withstood their first choice seamers (except Amir) does not bode well for Pakistan but so does several other things.
Mohammad Amir’s fitness is pivotal to Pakistan. Without him, even with Mohammad Abbas’ rejuvenated display, Pakistan sorely lack the cutting edge. Abbas has more wickets than Amir since he debuted but the undoubted leader of the pack is the left-arm seamer and his presence also puts England’s top order under severe pressure.
While the Ireland Test was indeed a forgettable one for Pakistan’s bowling unit the same cannot be said of their batting. Imam-ul-Haq’s temperament and stability were impressive as was Shadab Khan and Faheem Ashraf’s fightback. Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq didn’t fire but the duo are experienced campaigners who can be banked on to stand up when Pakistan need them to. England can discount them at their own risk.
Babar Azam and Haris Sohail bring the flair while Sarfraz Ahmed adds the much needed fight. Shadab Khan’s competency with the bat augers well for Pakistan, particularly with their lower order, not the most reliable one.
Countering James Anderson and co with Amir and Abbas
Pakistan’s biggest challenge and one which gives England a definite edge is a domineering bowling attack. If they dictate terms, Pakistan could have a real tough series on their hands. Recent series’ against Australia have proven that England’s bowling isn’t the most threatening unless the surfaces suit them.
In this case, they do. But what England might tend to forget is Pakistan’s own battery of seamers. In these conditions, Amir and Abbas can be as threatening as Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood. And in this lies England’s biggest weakness and Pakistan’s greatest strength. Just for once, this series needn’t be a bed of roses for England, despite it being at home.