It’s one thing reaching the summit of the test cricket rankings; it’s another thing trying to stay there. This year will be a tough year for England with the likes of South Africa on the fixture list for the summer. But their quest to remain at the top of the best format in cricket restarts on Tuesday in Dubai against an improving Pakistan.
Despite Pakistan being fifth and England first in the rankings, the hosts shouldn’t be underestimated.
Under new captain Misbah Ul-Haq, they have produced some impressive displays, but England will be more than prepared for the threats that they possess.
Despite not facing any of the top three teams in the world last year (West Indies, New Zealand and Zimbabwe), Pakistan have shown signs, across all formats, that they could spring an upset on an England side that will go in to the three-match-series as favourites.
As has been well documented, the pitches out in Dubai are expected to be slow and low, giving an early indication that spin will play a huge part. And in Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal, you have two of the finest spin bowlers in the world set to pit their wits against one another – a battle that will be an intriguing one to say the least.
In fact Ajmal took more wickets than anyone else in the world last year, picking up 50 scalps in tests, at an average of just 23. Ajmal also comes with his very own variations, amongst a brilliant doosra that is expertly disguised. England have struggled against spin in the past, and in Ajmal, Pakistan have one of the best.
Swann’s form curtailed towards the end of last summer, but that was more to do with the pace-men doing the damage, leaving him with little to do. He will need to do much of the donkeywork for the side if England are to stand a chance.
But Swann should have good support from Monty Panesar if picked. The left-arm tweaker looked good in the two warm up matches, picking up a five-wicket haul in the first innings of the second game. He looked to be getting back to his best, getting that drift and sharp turn; something that we saw when he first arrived on the International scene in 2006.
England’s front-line quick men are some of the best in the world, even on ineffective pitches. Loosing Tim Bresnan isn’t ideal, but the strength in depth, especially in the bowling ranks, is something England have in abundance. But the problems with Bresnan, and also Tremlett with an eye infection, may cause the selectors some headache; a five-man bowling unit with two spinners, or just one spinner with three seamers? All will be revealed on the morning of the test.
Pakistan have the dangerous Umar Gul in their ranks along with Wahab Riaz, the left arm seam bowler, who impressed when in England last time out. Both bowl with pace and have the ability to move a ball both ways.
It is Pakistan’s batting that may be where England will fancy their chances. Misbah has been quite a find as captain, skippering the side with superb ability and skill, also contributing hugely with the bat. Opening batsman Mohammed Hafeez is also a huge talent; he turned that very talent in to a number of sizeable scores last year – he will be looking to continue in that same groove against the sternest of tests in England’s bowing unit.
But England’s batting line-up really speaks for itself. Alistair Cook averaged near 75 each time he batted last year and hit 133 in the final warm up game last week. Ian Bell bettered that, averaging an astounding 113 each time he walked out to the middle in the same 12 months. That goes without mentioning Strauss, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott.
It is set to be an intriguing tour; one that could determine how England’s year pans out.
A win would set England’s summer up to be an absolute cracker.