On the eve of the first Test match between England and Pakistan, Tom Sizeland picks five talking points ahead of the showdown in Abu Dhabi.
STELLAR ‘HOME’ RECORD
England coach Trevor Bayliss said that the Pakistan series is going to be the toughest challenge of the season so far. If Pakistan’s record in the UAE is anything to go by, who could blame him? They’ve never lost a Test series that has solely been played in the UAE. Their only series defeat came in 2002 in the three match series against Australia, with the first match played in Colombo. Not even the Proteas – the best travelers in the world by quite some distance – could win, with two 1-1 draws. The last time England visited here, in 2011, they were ranked No 1 in the world and they were humbled 3-0. Pakistan’s recent form in general has been good too, with 3 series victories in 4, including a 2-0 win against Australia last year.
If this is the toughest challenge for England, then it’s the perfect opportunity to continue to show how far they’ve come since their disastrous Ashes whitewash defeat and World Cup group stage exit. The New Zealand series was the catalyst for their change in fortunes thanks to the younger players in the side such as Ben Stokes and Joe Root, and they backed up the hype by regaining the Ashes. Playing in the subcontinent is a different kettle of fish however, where patience will reap more rewards than power. Batting consultant Mahela Jayawardene will be sure to have helped them adapt to the conditions. Should England get a result out of this one, it will put them in good stead for when they tour South Africa, which will probably also be labeled their toughest challenge yet.
MOEEN: A CALCULATED GAMBLE?
Alastair Cook will walk out to the crease with a different openening partner for the 7th time on Tuesday, and it appears that Moeen Ali has won the race over Alex Hales to be that man. It will make Moeen the first person since 1935 to open for England without having previously opened in a first-class game. While he needs to score runs, his role as a spinner will be just as crucial. His position at the top allows space for Adil Rashid to come in as the second spinner, and in conditions that offer little for pace, movement or swing, this series could come down to the battle of the spinners. If Moeen performs with that bat, the selection headache will quickly disappear for Bayliss.
NO 3 FACTOR
Pakistan have been dealt a blow with the news that Azhar Ali will miss the first Test. The ODI captain has played 44 of Pakistan’s last 46 matches, with nine hundreds at an average of 44. His absence leaves a massive gap to fill at No 3, a position he has made his own. Should Younis Khan not move up a spot, Fawad Alam, who hasn’t played in six years, could be the man to come in, while Shoaib Malik is also targeting a surprise recall. Either way, there will be pressure to fill Ali’s boots and perform.
TIME TO BLOOD THE YOUNGSTERS
Pakistan skipper Misbah ul Haq has hinted that this series could be his last, in a Test career that only really took off when he was 33. They an experienced unit, with fellow veterans such as Younis Khan, Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik in the back-end of their careers. They don’t, however, possess a plethora of world-class youngsters. 41-year-old Misbah will want to leave the side in good hands, and hope that the likes of opening batsmen Ahmed Shahzad and Shan Masood and pace bowler Junaid Khan – all under the age of 26 – will step up.