England last won a Test series against Pakistan in the year 2010. The series that is famous for all the wrong reasons. Since then, England have lost twice to them in UAE, 0-3 in 2011-12 and 1-2 in 2015-16. And, have drawn at home the same number of times, 2-2 in 2016 and 1-1 in 2018. Bangladesh is the only other nation that is yet to taste a series defeat against England since. Though, they played only a 2-Test series against them at home in 2016 which ended one-all.
The last time these two sides met was in England in 2018. Looking back from then, England have been more pragmatic in their red-ball selection. Their decade long struggle for a competent opening pair seems to be over with Rory Burns and Dom Sibley. Their middle-order is stronger with the superman like presence of Ben Stokes and they bat deep. To add substance to that theory, their number ten batsmen scored a half-century in the last Test against West Indies.
They have a bunch of fast bowlers to choose from, each with a specialized skill-set. James Anderson and Chris Woakes keep the batsmen confused with swing at home. Jofra Archer and Mark Wood have the strength to terrorise with raw pace and a powerful lower back to bowl bouncers all-day. Sam Curran is the left-arm variation while Stuart Broad’s accuracy is improving with age. England’s management have a knack of muddling up the playing XI by failing to cover all bases, as was the case against West Indies in the first Test. Apart from that, England are a stronger unit from the series in 2018.
Pakistan have a larger portion of their batting core from the 2018 series intact. Whether Pakistan competes in the series or not will depend on how their batsmen especially Azhar Ali, Babar Azam and Asad Shafiq bat. But, the onus of winning lies with the bowlers, as is the case with Pakistan cricket across formats.
In an assembly line of fast bowlers, Mohammed Abbas is the only survivor among Pakistan’s main pacers in the 2018 series. Performing better than Anderson and Broad on every bowling parameter, Abbas was the player of the series then. Picked for only one Test, Abbas had a wicket-less tour to Australia in 2019, which his side lost 0-2. To move on from there, he will prefer the Duke’s ball in his hands in amicable conditions. Helped further by a stint with Leicestershire in 2018-19, Abbas will be England’s main threat. Add to it the 6’6’’ tall Shaheen Afridi and the 17-year old speedster Naseem Shah, Pakistan have a pace bowling attack that covers all aspects.
Not a lot went right for the visiting batsmen in the recently concluded series between England and West Indies. One of the things that did go their way was a low number of dismissals in the slip cordon against pacers. Until the second Test, only one of their batsmen got out at slips against pace, they added only three more to that list by the end of the series.
It is debatable whether this was a by-product of their judgement around off-stump or an outcome of their predominant back foot play. The designated top-8 West Indies batsmen received 63.1% balls on good length or fuller. They played only 40.7% balls on the front foot. In comparison, the England top-8 played 61.7% balls on the front foot while they received 71.4% balls at good length or fuller.
By the second Test, England bowlers were prepared to exploit this hesitation by targeting their stumps.
West Indies batsmen had a mediocre batting average of 18.4 on their preferred style of play. To add to it, 14 of the 29 dismissals on the back foot were LBW or bowled, indicating a severe error of judgement in length.
The defensive approach of bowling first in the last two Tests did not help their batting either. On a wicket that was far from lively, they imploded on the last day on both occasions. Even after losing a day to rain in both Tests, England were able to win comprehensively.
There is a lesson or two here for Pakistan batsmen and their batting coach Younis Khan. Based on what we saw against the West Indies, it is certain that the England bowlers will target their stumps. Batting on the front foot is the natural style of play of the subcontinent batsmen. Hence, Pakistan batsmen are unlikely to commit the same error as West Indies. But, their patience when England pacers resort to classic Test match bowling outside the off-stump, will decide their fate.
What’s at stake?
It is less than a year to go before the final of the World Test Championship. As normalcy resumes in cricket, each Test holds a higher importance than just being a distraction in the pandemic era.
As things stand right now, India and Australia occupy the top two spots. England are third on the WTC table with 226 points after three series. If they win two Tests against Pakistan they will move to ahead of Australia who have 296 points. England’s last WTC fixture is a five-match away series against India. To avoid a heavy dependency on that, they will target to win all the other matches – three against Pakistan and two away against Sri Lanka.
Pakistan are at fifth with 140 points after three series. They will need a white-wash or a 2-0 win to move to number three. As their final two series after this involve a 2-Test tour to New Zealand, their hopes in the WTC rests with their performance in this series.
Going by the trend in the last decade, one can expect this contest to be tougher than the one observed in the last fortnight.
Though the English weather is uncertain, rain can play spoilsport on the opening day. But, we can expect second to the fifth day to be dry.
England- Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Joe Root ©, Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (wk), Dom Bess, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, James Anderson
Pakistan- Abid Ali, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali ©, Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Fawad Alam, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Shah, Shaheen Afridi.
The match starts at 3.30 PM IST on Wednesday, August 05th