Under Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum, England have certainly turned a corner. Since Joe Root’s ouster as captain, the English side has gone on to taste great success at home. Their style of pushing a result at all cost has paid off. Of course, there will be situations where in they falter or things do not go according to plan, but the mindset that pushes them to win from every situation is perhaps something that is firmly instilled within this group.
"We'll certainly be pushing for results because we see it as our obligation to try and ensure that people walk away entertained. And if we get beat, Pakistan, we know, will have played well. I expect us to play well and if we get outplayed, that's okay too,” McCullum said ahead of England’s historic Test tour – their first since 2005.
“Looking forward to the opportunity, looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to the hospitality. And hopefully, in a few weeks' time, everyone will say this has been an amazing series."
Out of the seven Tests since Stokes has assumed charge, England have chased down a target of over 270 on four occasions, one of them being 378 against India at Edgbaston. As expected, their high-risk game took a beating against South Africa at Lord’s. But their persistence, belief in their method, and the process eventually triumphed as they would go on to have the final laugh at the end of the series.
However, even this swashbuckling England side have a couple of hurdles. For starters, this will their first overseas assignment. And secondly, they go into the tour without their most prolific run-getter in the summer – Jonny Bairstow.
Bairstow is the only player to have scored over 1,000 runs in Tests this year. His 1,061 runs have come at an average of 66.31, strike-rate of 76 and get this: he has six tons (most in 2022) and one fifty from 19 innings. Staggering!
Moreover, Bairstow found the boundary once every 9.6 deliveries, the best after Rishabh Pant (7.8) in 2022 (Min: 300 runs), underlying the brand of cricket he got England accustomed to.
The selection of Liam Livingstone and Will Jacks is once again indication of the brand of cricket England are looking to play in this series. The inclusion of 16-year-old leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed in the mix further indicates that this English Test side will play their cricket fearlessly, just like their white-ball team has done over the years that has fetched them enormous success.
Not to forget, they will also be without Mark Wood for the first Test as the fast bowler continues to recover from a hip injury, which is another blow for England. However, Ben Duckett and Keaton Jennings have been handed a lifeline following their impressive domestic performances. Jennings, especially, is no stranger to playing in Asia. His two tons and a fifty have all come in the subcontinent, including 112 on debut against India in Mumbai.
If the previous Test at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium is anything to go by, we can expect a run-feast with the bowlers having to toil hard on all five days. As always, a big first innings total is going to be key in the subcontinent, especially with high chances of the pitch breaking up from the end of the day three.
Pakistan too have made a few brave calls by leaving out Fawad Alam, Hasan Ali and Yasir Shah. Shaheen Afridi’s absence could also be a huge blow. But all this paves way for a potential Test debut for Mohammad Wasim and Haris Rauf – two of Pakistan’s key figures in their T20 World Cup final run recently – while Naseem Shah and Faheem Ashraf further add depth to Pakistan’s seam attack.
Among the spinners two of Nauman Ali, Mohammad Nawaz and 24-year-old leg-spinner Abrar Ahmed might get a look in. Pakistan might be tempted to give Abrar a debut given that he has fared extremely well in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, where he is the top wicket-taker with 43 scalps at 21.95.
This could also be a lifeline for Azhar Ali, who was earlier this year dropped for the second Test against Sri Lanka after a string of poor run. Since the 185 against Australia, incidentally in Rawalpindi, he managed scores of 14, 6, 78, 17, 3 and 6. However, he has scored heavily in the domestic first-class tournament, hitting three tons and a fifty in eight innings, to force himself back in the reckoning.
The aim will be to bat first put up at least 350-400 on the board and let the bowlers do their job. The average first innings score in Rawalpindi since 2019 is 322, but keep in mind, if the surface holds up, excess of 250 in the fourth innings could be chased down. It may not turn out to be a typical subcontinent wicket after all.
With vital World Test Championship (WTC) points up for grabs, it will certainly not be a match or series both sides would take lightly. While these are the last three Tests for England in this cycle, Pakistan will have two more games – against New Zealand – up their sleeves after this series.
There could a few debutants for Pakistan in this game. It will be interesting to see if Shan Masood is picked to play in the middle-order in place of Agha Salman or even potentially Azhar Ali.
Pakistan Probable XI: Abdullah Shafique, Imam-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam ©, Agha Salman, Faheem Ashraf, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Mohammad Wasim, Naseem Shah, Haris Rauf, Nauman Ali, Abrar Ahmed/Zahid Mahmood
England: The visitors are set to hand in a Test debut for Liam Livingstone, who along with his big-hitting abilities, can also bowl a bit of off-spin and leg-spin to support Jack Leach. Livingstone has over 3,000 first-class runs at 38.36, while his part-time bowling has fetched him 43 scalps at 36.13 so far.
"With Livi he's one of those cricketers who can come on from anywhere and take a wicket when the ball's flowing a bit the opposition's way. I've already spoken to Rooty [Joe Root] as well. I'm going to try to use him quite a lot. I think he underuses himself. He's actually got some very good assets as an off-spin bowler. He's been working very hard on his bowling," Stokes said.
It's interesting that England have chosen Duckett ahead of Jennings given the latter's good showing in Asia over the years.
Final XI: Zak Crawley Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Joe Root, Harry Brook, Ben Stokes ©, Ben Foakes (wk), Liam Livingstone, Jack Leach, James Anderson, Ollie Robinson