Pakistan vs England – a preview

3 weeks to the start of the England series, the pre-series banter has begun. What has been visibly evident is the conscious effort on the part of either side to show respect to the opposition. Strauss, Swann, Broad, Anderson and Bell have recognized Pakistan’s current form in the longer format and have refused to get drawn into any sort of psychological warfare with their opponents. The ‘hosts’ have exercised similar caution, quietly reflecting on their recent successes and their familiarity with the conditions in UAE.

If the current rankings are anything to go by, England should walk over Pakistan. The top order comprising Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pieterson and Bell is arguably the most technically sound lineup in world cricket. On the bowling front, England have an extremely varied attack that has proven its prowess on most pitches outside the sub-continent. Anderson has swung the ball both conventionally and in reverse at decent pace. Broad, on Andy Flower’s goading has finally started pitching the ball up and has set any Andrew Flintoff musings to rest. Bresnan and Tremlett have been charged with rouging up the batsmen with bounce and pace. Graeme Swann adds a most delicious balance to the attack and has shown the ability to attack and contain with equal adeptness.

The England bowlers’ biggest challenge will be in adapting to the notoriously flat wickets of the UAE. England’s recent 5-0 drubbing in an ODI series in India was not a result of fatigue or a lack of motivation. The results accurately portray an inability on the part of Anderson and co to extract life from the Indian surfaces and match their exploits on the more responsive pitches outside of the sub-continent. For all their recent successes, England’s batch of 2012 has yet to win a series on the spinning wickets of Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka. A closer look at the England bowling performances reveals averages of 45.41 for James Anderson and 56.11 for Stuart Broad in the sub-continent. The averages shoot up even more if games involving Bangladesh are omitted from the analysis. While the sample sizes of these games are still not significant enough to give an accurate understanding of their capabilities, these uninspiring numbers will undoubtedly worry Andy Flower as he chooses from his bowling stocks. England’s fast bowlers must seek to draw inspiration from the 2001 victory under Nasser Hussain when Darren Gough switched to off-cutters, slower balls and reverse swing to help dismantle a solid Pakistan team.

Pakistan are an almost bizarre anti-thesis to the mercurial, aggressive band of glamorous talents who terrorized the Englishmen in the 90’s. The rather apologetic looking bowling attack of Umar Gul, Aizaz Cheema, Wahab Riaz and Junaid Khan is unlikely to send shivers down the English players’ spine. On the batting front, Pakistan have shed the expansive stroke-play characteristic of the Anwars, Inzamams and Yousafs of prior years and have reverted to their safety-first approach championed by the Pakistan teams of the 70’s and 80’s. In their eagerness to indoctrinate the team with this new strategy, Pakistan have even chosen to leave out their most dashing batsman, Umar Akmal from the test match team.

It is in spin that Pakistan will choose to find its aggression. In Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Mohommad Hafeez, Pakistan possess arguably the most varied and potent spinning lineup in the game. If Pakistan can somehow get through the impressive Strauss and Cook, the spinners are likely to enjoy bowling to Trott (averaging 34 in his only two games in the sub-continent) , Pieterson (averaging 34 in matches in the sub-continent in matches excluding Bangladesh) and Morgan (averaging 29 against Pakistan). The classy Ian Bell has traditionally been a thorn in Pakistan’s side (averaging 68.8 against Pakistan) and is likely to continue his love affair with the Pakistan attack.

The obsession with spin is however a dangerous double-edged sword. In the winter of 2001, Moin Khan arrogantly assumed that Saqlain, Mushtaq and Kaneria would spin webs around the English lineup which was supposedly vulnerable to spin. The strategy backfired miserably. The friendliest of trundlers,Ashley Giles turned in the decisive performance of the series and ended up with 17 wickets as England squeezed out a memorable win victory in the dark of Karachi. Fast forwarding to 2011, it is again the battle between the Pakistani batsmen and the English spin attack that could decide the fate of the test series. Judging from his performances in the last series between the two countries when he captured 28 wickets in 4 test matches, Graeme Swann has developed something of a mental hold over Pakistan’s batsmen and is likely to enjoy the extra assistance on offer from the pitches in the UAE. As Pakistan found to their dismay in England, being rooted to the crease is a dangerous option against Swann who uses subtle variations in flight, drift and sharp spin to outfox batsmen. In recent years Pakistan have displayed similar weaknesses against spinners such as Panesar, Warne, Herath, Murali, MacGill and even Nathan Hauritz, as they have managed to tie down the Pakistan batsmen and have attacked with plenty of close-in fielders. In preparing to counter the threat of Swann, the Pakistani batsmen could do worse than to look at the way India’s batsmen have tackled Swann by improvising and refusing to allow him to dictate terms. The key for Pakistan’s batsmen will be to put Swann off his length by sweeping, using the feet and guarding against his drift. If the Pakistani batsmen let Swann settle into a rythm his wicket-taking deliveries will inevitably follow.

Unfortunately with the exception of Younis Khan and Mohommad Hafeez the remainder of Pakistan’s batting is unlikely to approach Swann with any sort of aggression. Misbah and Mohsin Khan have both made it clear in their recent statements that Pakistan’s safety-first approach is here to stay. Umar Akmal, potentially Pakistan’s most aggressive batsman against Swann is likely to be kept out of the team in favor of the more sedate Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali who solidified their positions with solid performances in the recent series against Bangladesh. Pakistan could do well to learn from the Englishmen’s approach in 2005 when they benched an experienced Graeme Thorpe and opted for a more aggressive option in Kevin Pieterson. As it turned out KP was the perfect antidote to the Australian aggression as he played the defining innings of the summer and landed the Ashes for the Englishmen. Similar to KP, Umar Akmal is a showman who craves the limelight. In Akmal, Pakistan hold a potential key to the series. Whether Misbah and co choose to utilize his undisputed talent is another matter.

The last two encounters between Pakistan and England in the subcontinent provide interesting insight into the sort of cricket that can be expected from the upcoming series. The 2001 series was dull and uninspiring with Pakistan adopting a safety-first approach and an unwillingness to take the initiative. The 2005 series, saw an aggressive Pakistan side hit the Englishmen with both pace and spin while its batsmen made merry on familiar pitches. The current Pakistan team does not boast bowlers of the speed of Akhtar or batsmen of the stature of Inzamam and is unlikely to show the same level of aggression. England on the contrary will be eager to hit the ground running. The England team’s recent successes have not been a fluke; they have learned how to capture the big moments in cricket matches, how to grind down oppositions in the field and how to play for draws when the going gets tough. Furthermore, in Andy Flower, England possess a coach who knows a thing or two about handling quality spin bowling and will offer excellent advice on how to nullify Pakistan’s biggest weapon.

It promises to be a fascinating battle between two widely contrasting teams. January 17th could not come any sooner!

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About Assad Hasanain
Follow me on twitter @LeftArmAround

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