In a summer dominated by Euro 2016, Wimbledon and Brexit it is fair to say cricket has struggled to make much of an impression on the nation’s conciousness. It has not been helped by the fact that although England’s victories over Sri Lanka in Test, one day and 20 20 cricket were impressive, the visitors were too poor and the series were too one sided to make much of an impression on the public. Add to that a yawn of a T20 Blast group stage that started back on May 20th and won’t end until July 29th and it is no wonder cricket is struggling for publicity.
However with a window in the UK sporting calendar until the Olympics and the Premier League start in August cricket has a chance to regain its place in the sporting spotlight. And the start of England’s four Test series against Pakistan should allow cricket to take this opportunity. For one thing usually guaranteed in England v Pakistan series is drama. Not all of it is good to put it mildly. In past Pakistan tours of England there has been cricketers found guilty of spot fixing and sent to prison (2010), a team refusing to play a Test match because they were penalised for ball tampering (2006), pitch invasions (2001), ball tampering allegations (1992), controversy about umpiring (1987 and 1982), controversy about intimidatary bowling (1978), and even a row about rain getting on the covers at Lords (1974). Only in 1996 did a Pakistan tour pass off without controversy in the last 42 years.
The main tour controversy this time is a relic of the spot fixing controversy of 2010. Three Pakistani players Mohammad Said, Salman Butt and Mohammad Amir were banned by the International Cricket Council (ICC) for five years. The bans expired last year but only Amir (who was 18 when he was banned) has been picked for this tour. Now I mentioned Amir in an earlier post (“On the hypocrisy of sport”) but let’s just say I reckon if he was guilty of rape or domestic abuse and white he would have got a far friendlier reception than the one he is likely to get on Thursday.
But fortunately series between England and Pakistan are not just famous for controversy but also exciting cricket. For some reason the combination of England and Pakistan in english conditions rarely produces dull cricket and it won’t this time either. Pakistan are a cricketing miracle. Unable to play at home since the Sri Lankan team’s coach was bombed in 2009 Pakistan have none the less risen to number three in the Test rankings above England. This is mainly due to the remarkable captaincy and batting of the 42 year old Misbah-ul-Haq who took over a team on its knees after the 2010 turmoil and turned them into a team that punches above its weight especially in Test cricket. Pakistan have a proud tradition of producing world class bowlers and this team continues the tradition with Amir, Wahab Riaz and Yasir Shah who is probably the first world class leg spinner to visit this country since Shane Warne’s last tour in 2005.
This bowling attack will provide a severe examination for what is still the weakest part of the England team the batting. Even against an outclassed Sri Lanka England’s batting was still unreliable. In only one of the five innings where England scored over 100 did the team reach 100 with fewer than three wickets down. The selectors have taken action again. Nick Compton withdrew from first class cricket citing exhaustion but his form was so poor he would certainly have been dropped anyway. Gary Ballance has been recalled and most interestingly Joe Root indisputably the team’s best player will bat number three. Root at number three and Ballance at his county position of number five gives England at least the appearance of solidity although James Vince who failed to get runs against Sri Lanka and Alex Hales who did have still got to prove themselves against Test quality bowling.
England also have problems in the bowling department. Their leading wicket taker of all time James Anderson is out of at least the first Test with injury while all rounder Ben Stokes can only play as a batsman and thus has not been picked. This means that either Nottinghamshire’s Jake Ball or Middlesex’s Toby Roland-Jones will make his Test debut. Ball really should have been given his debut in the dead third Test against Sri Lanka to give him experience but instead he will be thrown in at the deep end.
England’s bowling is a key in this series as Pakistan’s batting especially in English conditions could be seriously vulnerable. In 2010 Pakistan were bowled out for scores of 80, 72 and 74. It goes without saying that Pakistan must bat better this year but most of their batting is unproven in England. Even Misbah has never toured England before. The experienced Younis Khan who has been a success in England before has a key role both with the runs he can score and also he needs to mentor the other batsmen.
Because of this batting vulnerability England must start the series as favourites but Pakistan are capable of putting England’s batting under pressure. One hopes this series will produce excellent cricket and more importantly will be the first England v Pakistan series in twenty years – and only the second in 45 years – not to be marred by controversy over match fixing, ball tampering or umpiring decisions. But judging by the history of England-Pakistan cricket on the last forty years that could be wishful thinking….