On dusty pitches and in immense UAE heat, England face a tough time in Tests against favourites Pakistan
As England prepare to take the field for the first Test in Abu Dhabi next week even the English experts are skeptical of captain Alastair Cook’s men overcoming the spin attack that Pakistan are going to throw at them. This is Pakistan’s Test match fortress of late where they are almost invincible and none more so than last year, barring that odd Test defeat by New Zealand.
But England have traditionally been known for their resilience against all odds. Recall their tour of India a few years ago when no one gave newly installed skipper Cook’s men a chance and yet he turned around the series not just with his batting but by his leadership. Then of course he had Monty Panesar and Kevin Pieterson.
Neither of the two are now travelling with the team and their careers are as good as finished. Ironic that both of them were in the squad when England last played Pakistan in UAE and were whitewashed. Had Panesar, who took 14 wickets in that series to warrant a return, been brought in it wouldn’t admittedly have made much of a difference given that he has been fired by two counties in three years.
Pieterson would have probably been a man for these pitches and conditions but he too had been outthought last time out here by the Pakistan spin duo of Ajmal and Rehman, both remnants of history now it seems.
The England think tank have nevertheless learned from their mistakes of the last tour where they relied more on their fast men than spin attack and in the first Test of that series had attacked with Swann only. They brought in Panesar a little late but though were whitewashed still, they took note nevertheless.
This time they are going in with Moeen Ali and one more spinner who could just be Patel, who came in after Zafar Ansari broke his thumb in the most unfortunate instance after he had been selected for this tour, the first time in history that three Pakistan genes spinners had formed the total spin strength that England were taking abroad. Even now it means three Asian spinners which is a record in itself still.
Moeen is likely to play at least the first Test as opener as England will not make the same mistake again of going in with one spinner only. That should be a safe strategy as the pitches are going to be batting friendly and there should be no cloud cover to make the ball move. If Alex Hales were to open with Cook England would have to find a way to bring in a second spinner.
Question remains whether Moeen can be the aggressive spinner which is needed if England are to chew into the seemingly impregnable Test batting line up of Pakistan. He has been acting in the support role to the fast bowlers this summer and to be suddenly thrust with Adil Rashid or Samit Patel to do what Ajmal and Rehman did last time to England or what Yasir and Babar are likely to do this time may just be asking too much by the England coach and captain.
Adil Rashid in fact has yet to play a Test and to play his first on such pitches and against such opposition is going to be testing to say the least. It has to be seen whether his love for flight is going to be as successful on these pitches.
These are pitches where the spinners have to have a different strategy, skidding the ball through is the trick, proven by the fact that in the three Tests spinners took 43 of their wickets through leg before decisions.
I therefore think that it is the England pacemen who just might do the trick for Cook this time as they are more likely to push the ball through than the England spinners who are not of the same caliber as the previous England spinners. And it is Broad and Anderson who are there again, the other survivors beside Cook and Bell of that whitewash in 2012. Last time they took 22 wickets together and this time more will be expected of them considering there is no Swann and Panesar who between them took 27 wickets, something that will be a challenge for the inexperienced trio of Moeen, Patel and Rashid. Maybe Ben Stokes can play a role but his lesser pace should be fodder for Misbah and Co.
England will nevertheless be more concerned about their batting. They have far less experience than they did last time when they had Strauss, Cook, Bell, Pieterson and Morgan. None really succeeded and of the survivors Bell averaged 8.50 in the Tests and Cook 26.50; the highest score from England’s side was by Cook and that was 94. With both in their twilight and lesser experienced batsman to rely on Cook will be a very worried man.
England now have their young Turks lined up therefore to do battle against the Pakistani spinners and for Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor this series may just make men out of them, even if they were to go by the way the England batting maestros went last time. For in doing so they will have battled not just spin but heat and dust of what is one of the toughest regions for batsman from England.