England and Pakistan should have figured each other out by now – they played a 5-match One-Day International (ODI) series recently, and England eased to an easy 4-0 victory. And both teams played to that par in their campaign openers at 2019 World Cup – Pakistan collapsed against the West Indies, and England was all over South Africa with bat, ball, and in the field.
Against that, you can rule nothing out in a global tournament. England were tournament favourites when they hosted the Champions Trophy 2017 on home soil, but Pakistan spoiled their party by defeating them in the semi-final. The question really is how soon Pakistan can put the trauma of the humiliating collapse against the Caribbean quicks behind them and bounce back.
Nobody knows better than Pakistan that it is near-impossible to defend a target against England. Out of the five matches the two sides played recently, Pakistan put up 340-plus three times and lost all three. In fact, the last team to defend a target against England was Australia – back in 2015. Sri Lanka got close in 2016, when they tied at Trent Bridge.
England not only has the highest win percentage (66.29) since the previous World Cup, they have successfully chased a target down on 17 occasions at home, which is second best to the West Indies team of 1983 to 1990. (This could be one of the reasons South Africa, in the tournament opener, chose to field first on winning the toss – not that it helped.)
For Pakistan, it is the middle-order that is the major issue. Two of their most experienced batsmen, Mohammad Hafeez and Shoaib Malik, should ideally play every match. In their first game, Pakistan played Hafeez, but down the order at No. 6, a position where he has batted just thrice. His natural position is number four, where he averages 41.02.
Malik did not play against the West Indies, but he needs to find place in the starting eleven – he has scored more runs than any other international batsman batting at the number five position since 2017, with as many as six 50-plus scores from 30 innings.
If both Malik and Hafeez play, it will Pakistan some depth with the ball as well. Then there is Asif Ali, who missed the first match but is expected to make it to the XI for the game against England. Ali has a strike-rate of 144 against pacers and 107 against spinners. At Trent Bridge, where pace and bounce will play a key role, Asif could be an inspired pick. He is also a terrific player at the death, striking at 159, and is not too bad even in the middle-phase, in which he has a strike-rate of 103.
Former Pakistan fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar took a dig at Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed, calling him fat and unfit. “When Sarfaraz Ahmed came for the toss, his stomach was sticking out and his face was so fat. He’s the first captain I’ve seen who is so unfit. He’s not able to move across and he’s struggling with wicket-keeping,” Akhtar said.
Cruel, perhaps, and maybe even a trifle inaccurate – Inzamam ul Haq, under whom Akthar has played, was not exactly supermodel-slim. But Sarfaraz does look a bit under par and it has shown not only in his keeping but even with the bat, where he has scored just 486 runs from 22 innings at 32.40 with three fifties since the beginning of 2018. Against that, his counterpart Eoin Morgan has scored 1,233 runs at 49.32, with as many as 12 fifties and a century, in the same period.
Going by past performances in ICC events, it is Pakistan who have the advantage, having beaten England five times in the last seven matches in ICC events. But history counts for nothing on the day, unless Pakistan can get its combination right and recover from the mauling at the hands of the Windies.
If there was any positive from that game, it was the form of Mohammad Amir. The pacer went wicketless for six continuous matches between July 2018 and January 2019, but returned figures of 3 for 26 against West Indies. Amir does well in swinging conditions, and has done better in SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia) countries that in Asia.
The same cannot be said about his bowling partner Hasan Ali, who has been on the decline since 2017 – the year he established himself as Pakistan’s frontline bowler. 2019 has been a particularly bad year for him, as he has five wickets at 81.6, an economy rate of 6.2 and gets a wicket once in every 78.6 deliveries – his worst figures in the last three years. Bringing in Shaheen Afridi in his place might work, as the teenager can generate serious pace and his height gives him an opportunity to exploit the bounce of the Trent Bridge wicket, which the West Indies had used to good effect.
For England, Liam Plunkett has been a great asset since the 2015 World Cup. Having made his debut in 2005, he managed just 39 wickets at 33.9 and strike-rate of 34.9 till 2011. However, he has turned it around since the 2015 World Cup and is among the top three wicket-takers among pacers.
Even though England have the pacey Mark Wood on the bench, it is unlikely they will drop either Plunkett or Chris Woakes to make room. While Plunkett is a force to be reckoned with in the middle phase and the death, Woakes does the damage during the field restrictions. Out of the 79 wickets he has picked up since 2015 World Cup, 40 have come in the first powerplay. Only Trent Boult, with 44, has more.
England had a near perfect game against South Africa and would not want to tinker with a winning combination.
England: Liam Plunkett, Eoin Morgan (c), Adil Rashid, Jos Buttler (wk), Jonny Bairstow, Jason Roy, Ben Stokes, Chris Woakes, Moeen Ali, Joe Root, Jofra Archer
Pakistan on the other hand need to make changes: Find a way to accommodate Asif Ali and Shoaib Malik and, ideally, bring in Afridi.
Pakistan: Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam, Haris Sohail/Asif Ali, Mohammad Hafeez, Sarfaraz Ahmed (c & wk), Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali/Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz
England, having started the tournament strongly, will look to continue its dominance. Pakistan, after crashing to an embarrassing defeat in its tournament opener, needs a win to get on the board and get their confidence back. Trent Bridge, with something for pace and spin alike, and with shorter boundaries square of the wicket to invite batsmen, is the perfect venue for what should be a cracking contest.