After three days at home, a quick hello to partners and children, England are back in biobubble security in coronavirus-hit Manchester to defend a proud home record against a talented Pakistan side brimming with potential and unpredictable talent.
England may have a woeful record in the opening matches of recent Test series, losing their last five if you do not count the one off against Ireland last summer in which, let’s not forget, they were bowled out for 85.
But while they may be slow starters, England are strong finishers and winning in this country is the gold standard for every touring captain because it is so difficult.
Last year Tim Paine hoped to become the first Australian captain to win an Ashes in England for 18 years. A month ago it was Jason Holder dreaming of being the first West Indian to lead his side to a series win since 1988. Now Azhar Ali, captain of Pakistan, is looking to snatch the prize of guiding his country to victory in England after failure to do so in series since Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were in their pomp (1996).
Over the last 20 years England have lost just five of 41 series at home. Sri Lanka are the only side to beat them, and that was in a two-match series, since South Africa exploited a team ripped apart by Kevin Peitersen’s text messaging in 2012.
The unique circumstances of this summer play further into England’s hands. They go into this series battle hardened by a competitive contest against West Indies, and it was noticeable how it was the touring side that were gradually worn down by the suffocating life in a biobubble. Touring sides are confined to the hotels for longer than England, and Pakistan have already been here for four weeks training in Derby and Worcester.
They have only played intra-squad games and while coaches love to talk up the competitiveness of those matches, the reality is they are a long way removed from real cricket.
Joe Root spent the weekend changing nappies and mulling over his many bowling options. The mind never stops whirring as England captain but the change of scenery and freedom, albeit limited to staying at home, means his players are refreshed. “This environment can take a lot out of you mentally and to get that little reset and a chance to get home was massive for everyone,” he said. “You look round the group and see that everyone’s gained a lot from that and is ready to go again.”
Pakistan pose a greater threat to England than West Indies because of Babar Azam, a batsman capable of big hundreds. He has scored 22 percent of his side’s runs since 2019, the highest share of any batsman over that period, and can learn on this tour from batting coach and Pakistan’s highest ever run scorer, Younis Khan, about the art of playing late against the Dukes ball.
Babar took 17 Tests to score his first hundred but averages 64 since then and if he can resist the full, swinging tempters early on he could set up the match for Pakistan. The rest of their batting is the worry. Azhar Ali’s form has declined since he took on the mantle of captaincy. James Anderson deals with opener Shan Masood in the blink of an eye, dismissing him six times in 57 balls and a lot rests on Asad Shafiq, who does have a Test hundred in England but an average of 36 here.
Pakistan’s bowling promises much but in reality has fewer established quicks than West Indies brought over. Naseem Shah is the outstanding young bowling talent in world cricket, and Shaheen Afridi a left-armer who has developed his inswinger to the right-handers. He will share the new ball with Mohammad Abbas, an accurate, intelligent swing bowler who has 93 wickets at an average of 20 in England at county and Test level. Leg spinner Yasir Shah has declined in recent years but late summer in England will suit him.
English techniques will be tested which is why the fitness test for Ben Stokes on Wednesday morning is so important. They felt confident enough to drop Zak Crawley in the final Test against West Indies and cruised to victory but they were 122 for four in that game; West Indies just lacked the stamina to see them off. Picking the same XI against a fresh and young Pakistan attack would be more of a gamble.
Root has the resolve to do so because he can see progress with Dom Sibley and Rory Burns laying solid foundations with both averaging over 45 in the series. Root’s jaunty 68 in his last innings showed he has found some rhythm and Stokes can play any situation.
Root is enjoying a five match winning streak and his team are playing the way he wants. The dropping of Stuart Broad for the first Test in Southampton was carried out by willing deputy Stokes while Root was on paternity leave, but he has reaped the benefit of a wounded legend desperate to prove a point.
Broad plays again at Old Trafford but Anderson is beginning to look less of a threat as Test matches wear on. He has taken six wickets in the second innings of his last nine games, not including the first Ashes Test last year when he broke down after four overs in the match. His control remains exemplary, but it is now down to others to polish off teams.
Pakistan prepared for this series while in lockdown by holding zoom conference calls with greats of the past on how to play in England. Combatting Anderson was top priority. Broad enjoyed the plaudits for his 500th wicket last week. Anderson is on 589. Reaching that milestone will be a fascinating thread running through an intriguing series.