An impressive batting unit supported by an exciting bowling attack versus an impressive batting unit supported by an exciting bowling attack.
What will decide the series? Here’s my usual pre-series ramble, with stats on the Pakistan squad at the bottom.
- All rounders. England are running out fast. Debateable whether England will even have an all rounder for the first Test. Some names to mull: Ben Stokes (is he fit to bowl?), Joe Denly (dropped), Moeen Ali (dropped), Chris Woakes (struggling with the bat), Sam Curran (is he good enough at either discipline)? As for Pakistan, Shadab Khan averages 34 with the bat from five Tests, but only 27 in First Class – more a number seven than a six. Pakistan will be gambling either way: a five man attack lengthens the tail, an inexperienced four man attack has nowhere to hide.
- Pitch preparation. England would be stronger if they could confidently not pick a spinner (Bess didn’t contribute a lot with the ball against West Indies). Pakistan are itching to play two spinners. Why would the Old Trafford groundsman produce a deck that turns? Worth noting in the two Manchester Tests this summer, spin averaged 52 while pace was around half that at 27.
- Naseem Shah and Kashif Bhatti. Pakistan’s batting is solid, enough talent that they can cover if any one of them goes full Shai Hope. For all the excitement, I’m uncertain about their bowling. Mohammad Abbas is a banker (Test average 21, and the same average in two devastating seasons at Leicestershire). Shaheen Shah Afridi has 30 Test wickets, so has some track record. Yasir Shah has a proven record – it’s just a bit mediocre (averaging 34 in the last four years). One of Naseem Shah or Bhatti thus has to step up. The signs are good – both average 17 in domestic cricket in the last four years (Bhatti has 125 wickets, the younger N. Shah has only 26).
- Rest. West Indies clearly don’t read this blog (or The Daily Telegraph), else they wouldn’t have knackered their bowlers playing three back-to-back Tests. A three Test BTB series is more like a tournament than a traditional Test series: you’ve got to manage bowler workload. The easiest way to do that is to pick the best team for the first game, then half the pace bowlers miss the second Test, and the others miss the third. Sohail Khan is good enough to rotate in – but are the other Pakistan squad bowlers Test standard? With England’s squad depth, their edge will get bigger as the series goes on.
- England’s Ashes tunnel vision. Picking Crawley and Bess with an eye on December 2021 is silly. When the West Indies series got real, Crawley was dropped and Bess didn’t get a chance to bowl. Pakistan will be only too happy if England’s team sheet has a number three with a First Class average of 31, and an off spinner for Pakistan’s right handed middle order to milk. Bess isn’t a bad player, it’s just that England would have a better chance of winning playing an extra pacer.
England start as favourites. Burns, Sibley, Root, Stokes are a fine core of a batting order, and there’s healthy bowling options. If Stokes can bowl, a balanced England team playing on increasingly familiar territory should be too strong.