Angus Fraser in Lahore: Conditions make case for Prior to top order

Following the loss of Michael Vaughan, Simon Jones and Ashley Giles to injury, and with several of their leading players looking jaded after an arduous Test series, it would be tempting for England to be dismissive about the coming five one-day matches against Pakistan. But with the World Cup now only 15 months away, and England having just 35 limited-over matches in which to find the game plan that will transform them from outsiders into winners, every one-day game must have a purpose.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, and Vaughan, the captain, will have a good idea of the team they would like to select for their first match in the West Indies, but there are still three or four places in the squad to be claimed. Chris Tremlett, Gareth Batty and Owais Shah may come into the reckoning in India, but only if Matthew Prior, Ian Bell, Ian Blackwell, James Anderson, Liam Plunkett and Kabir Ali fail to take the chance to impress during five floodlit games here.

It will be a challenging series. Pakistan are a stronger outfit in one-day cricket than in the Test arena. Abdul Razzaq, the Pakistan all-rounder, has recovered from the elbow injury that kept him out of the Test series, and the hosts are on a high following the 2-0 win in the Test series.

England need to start well and that means winning at least one of the opening two matches in Lahore. Shahid Afridi, possibly the world's most fearsome limited-over batsman, will miss these games - serving the remainder of his ban for deliberately scuffing up the pitch in Faisalabad - and when he returns Pakistan will be at full strength.

The absence of Vaughan and the availability of the "supersub", a 12th player who can be introduced whenever the captain wishes, looks set to give Matthew Prior the chance to push his case for a World Cup place. Prior is the Sussex wicket-keeper, and he also opens the batting for the county in one-day cricket where his aggressive stroke play has brought him a fair amount of success. In his only one-day international, against Zimbabwe in 2004, he opened, as he did in England's narrow defeat to Pakistan A on Wednesday, when he scored a stylish 72.

Even so it would be a surprise if England asked Prior to bat here tomorrow. After an unsuccessful period attempting to turn Geraint Jones into a "pinch-hitter" - a player who is sent in at the top of the order to look for boundaries while the fielding restrictions are in place - England eventually returned to the Test combination of Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick.

Both have impressive one-day records but the batsman friendly nature of the pitches here make this an ideal location for a pinch-hitter, and if England wanted to give Prior a go, it would be Strauss who slipped down to three.

Many batsmen would find the pinch-hitter tag slightly insulting because it is akin to being called a slogger. But the label does not bother Prior. "Some people might call Australia's Adam Gilchrist a pinch-hitter," said Prior, making his point. "I don't think he would see it as an insult so it is not something I am worried about. I enjoy opening the batting in one-day cricket and I feel I can play my most natural game there."

Should Prior score runs at the top of the order he would put Geraint Jones's place in the side under pressure. Jones is a powerful and dangerous batsman too, but there is only likely to be room for one of these two when Vaughan returns.

If England are to compete with Pakistan, they will need Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff to find their best form with the bat. Pietersen scored a hundred in the second Test but the confidence which helped him to smash around the South Africans and Aussies seems to have been doused.

Flintoff had a miserable time with the bat during the Test series, averaging just over 20 in six innings, and he will be pleased that Danish Kaneria, who dismissed him twice, is seldom selected in Pakistan's one-day side. But Shoaib Akhtar, who claimed Flintoff's scalp on three occasions, is. Shoaib's record in one-day cricket - a wicket every 30 balls - is even better than in Test matches.

After bowling well in the third Test Plunkett looks certain to make his one-day debut. Anderson should be picked ahead of Kabir but every member of the squad has something to prove over the next 12 days.

England (probable): M E Trescothick (capt), A J Strauss, V S Solanki, K P Pietersen, A Flintoff, P D Collingwood, I D Blackwell, G O Jones, L E Plunkett, S Harmison, J M Anderson. Supersub: M J Prior.

Pakistan (probable): Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), Salman Butt, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Abdul Razzaq, Kamran Akmal, Yasir Arafat, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami. Supersub: Arshad Khan.

* The England and Wales Cricket Board and the Board of Cricket Control in India have at last agreed on an itinerary for the forthcoming tour of India. The cancellation of the Asia Cup means that England will now leave for India on 13 February 2006, a week earlier than expected, and once there they will play three Tests and seven one-dayers during a two month visit.

TRIO WITH A LOT TO PROVE

* GERAINT JONES
If Matthew Prior takes his opportunities at the top of the order, the place of England's wicketkeeper will come under severe pressure. Prior is confident and ambitious, and Jones needs to keep wicket well and score useful runs lower down the order.

* JAMES ANDERSON
Simon Jones, Chris Tremlett, Liam Plunkett and Kabir Ali have all pushed ahead of Anderson in the England pecking order. Injuries have given Anderson an opportunity to show that he still has what it takes, and he needs to perform.

* IAN BLACKWELL
There is a cricketer England could use in the 2007 World Cup within Blackwell. But has he got the desire to show it? He is never going to top the fitness tests but few hit the ball harder. This could be his last chance to impress.

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