• Future opponents

    As the England tour of South Africa approaches, has England’s drawn Test against Pakistan given any clues as to how the opponents might shape up at the end of the year? Tom Sizeland discusses some lessons from the Abu Dhabi contest.

    The English would have been happy with a draw against Pakistan, but they almost got more than they bargained for. Cook and co fought back in record-breaking fashion after Pakistan declared on 523-8, before some sensational bowling from Adil Rashid saw Pakistan collapse to 173 all out. In a thrilling finish, England were 25 runs short of the 99 required thanks to bad light.

    It was in stark contrast to the first four days as the fielders toiled in the heat, with a pitch that offered very little and an outfield that was extremely unforgiving to the batsmen. Sussing out the future opposition on a track like this is a veritably challenging task.

    It goes without saying that confidence going into a series helps, but there are certain players in the England camp that rely on it. It’s no coincidence that Ian Bell dropped two regulation catches amid a spell of poor form. The likes of Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler are also in danger of falling into international obscurity unless they build up some form. Cook dips in and out of form, and his 263 might just be the start of a fantastic spell for the skipper – just in time for the trip to the southern hemisphere.

    The side is likely to be tinkered with come the SA tour. For starters, they probably won’t be using two spinners. After Rashid’s heroics in Pakistan’s second innings, the rest of the series will reveal if he is difficult to drop or not. Moeen Ali’s future as an opening batsman will become clearer too, but there’s every chance that he will move down the order if he plays as the only spinner, which might prompt an introduction for Alex Hales at the top of the order. He’s an attacking batsman who enjoys pace off the bat, which will be interesting to see in SA. Should Bell or Bairstow struggle, James Taylor might get a go. His two Tests to date have both been against SA – he struggled to deal with the pace and bounce of Morne Morkel.

    The conditions in the UAE are extremely different to the ones in South Africa. The first Test has been a war of attrition and patience, bar day five. Cook produced the third longest innings of all time. Zulfiqar Babar bowled the second-highest number of overs in a Test innings in the last 10 years. After spending a healthy period of time in the UAE, how quickly can they change their tune in SA? Will they revert back to the enterprising, free-flowing style of play they employed against New Zealand and Australia? Will the Proteas let them?

    Without Joe Root, England would have an extremely soft middle-order. Bell’s days are numbered, Bairstow has done very little since coming back into the side, and Stokes and Buttler are short of form too. Stokes did play well for his 50 in the first Test, and it will be interesting to see if he can push on. Taylor is capable of playing at No 3 or 5, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him come in for Bell or Bairstow by the time this series is finished. If their middle order isn’t settled by the time they face the Proteas, they will be brutally exposed.

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    Tom Sizeland