England left for unknown territory yesterday in an unfamiliar role. In the next few weeks, in the United Arab Emirates of all places, they will play Pakistan in a three-match Test series as the world's top side.
The tour is taking place in the UAE because international cricket has not been possible in Pakistan since a murderous attack on the Sri Lankan team coach in Lahore early in 2009.
Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which have as much cricketing tradition as the moon, have thus become homes from home for Pakistan who, in typically contrary style, after their team was further rocked by being embroiled in a match-rigging scandal, have settled well to a nomadic existence. They will need to retain their unexpectedly splendid form of 2011, and then some, to repel England.
The scale of England's advance still makes it necessary to pinch yourself and anybody else in close proximity. They have become clearly the No 1 team in the ICC rankings, playing a form of cricket which has simply overwhelmed opponents, amassing formidable totals and then letting loose an irresistible bowling attack.
Two of the last three series have seen England at their most superb. In Australia last winter they won 3-1, a performance for the ages, and at home last summer against India, then world No 1, they won 4-0. They will start as clear favourites against Pakistan – though the odds may need readjusting in the limited-overs matches which follow – but Strauss was plainly aware, as he spoke at Heathrow Airport yesterday before boarding the flight to Dubai, that their opponents will be no pushovers.
Strauss's first task following his side's break of six weeks, an unfeasibly long period for them, will be to lay the ghost of Pakistan's hugely contentious tour of England in 2010.
It would be exaggerating to suggest the tour finished with both sides at each other's throats. But not by much. Strauss was clearly keen to forgive and forget yesterday, anxious that this tour is not overshadowed by previous events. "Let's hope there are no dull moments on the field but I think we all recognise it's time to move on from what happened with the spot-fixing stuff," he said. "What's happened before, as far as I'm concerned, is water under the bridge and I hope both sides can really play the game in the right spirit and produce a very entertaining and exciting Test match series," said Strauss.
"I think this is an opportunity to eradicate the perception that there's always issues between Pakistan and England. There's no reason why that should be the case. If we both approach it in the right spirit then that should be good for relations between the two teams but also world cricket in general."
Strauss conceded that England may well have to amend their approach to a more attritional mode. But he seemed to be relishing the challenge of the three tours he will undertake this year to alien conditions – this one to the UAE, to Sri Lanka in March and April and to India in November.
"England cricket teams' record in the subcontinent has been patchy," he said. "I think it's a really good time for us to have a lot of subcontinental cricket because we are confident, we've done well over the last two years or so and this is a kind of new frontier for us, to win and hopefully win consistently in the subcontinent.
"We are aware it's a stiff challenge and we are also aware you need to have very different types of skills if you want to do well out there. You've got to be very fit and it comes at a good time. It's just what we need as a side but we are not underestimating the size of the challenge.
"If you want to be regarded all round the world as the best side in the world, then you've got to win in all conditions. But the rankings are there for a reason. To get to No 1 you've got to win consistently. It doesn't mean you've got to win every series, but you've got to win consistently."Reuse content