England will need spin duo on song for new test
Barely had England announced a tried and trusted party for their first tour of the winter yesterday than they were installed as odds-on favourites.
This was perhaps an understandable reaction since England are now the best Test team in the world and the last time they played Pakistan they won with plenty to spare amid a cheating storm.
But it also dangerously overlooks both the difficulty of winning on pitches that are likely to be less responsive than a dead horse and that Pakistan have once more astonishingly reinvented themselves as a formidable force. To win in the United Arab Emirates, a region where most of the team have never played, England will have to bowl a gruelling amount of overs and be prepared to grind out runs.
It may involve an attritional form of cricket that they have largely done without in their recent buccaneering ascent, but which served them well a decade ago in securing two epic wins in the subcontinent, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Patience will be required above all other virtues, though the odd burst of inspiration will come in handy.
As was largely predictable, England have gone for a party of seven batsmen, five fast bowlers, two spin bowlers and two wicketkeepers. Fifteen of the 16 were in the squad that retained the Ashes in such sublime style in Australia last winter. They know what they are about.
Three players have been recalled after injury – Eoin Morgan (shoulder), Stuart Broad (shoulder) and Chris Tremlett (back). Great expectations will be placed on the spin duo of Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar, both of whom will probably play in at least two of the three Tests and bowl a vast number of constraining overs where nothing much happens.
For Panesar, who played the most recent of his 39 Test matches against Australia at Cardiff in the first match of the 2009 Ashes series, it represents an opportunity to resurrect his international career. He can expect to play a key holding role for over after relentless over.
But Swann, too, will be the centre of attention. He is an extremely clever bowler, with acute changes of flight and pace, a master of drift, but during England's domination of India last summer there were occasional signs that opponents were quite willing to carry the attack to him and having their way. Pakistan have enough bobby-dazzlers to make Swann ponder.
England's mixed bag of high-class fast bowlers will also be tested as they rarely have in recent times. They often say they like operating on small margins and they must – on the back, it is to be hoped, of substantial scores. Preparations for the series have already started. England have no intention of shedding their No 1 status lightly, and three players, Andrew Strauss, Matt Prior and Morgan, have joined the Performance Squad in India with another three, Jimmy Anderson, Broad and Tremlett, at a fast bowling camp in South Africa.
There have been but four Test matches before at the venues where the series will take place and only one positive result. Pakistan and South Africa fought out two arduous draws in Dubai and Abu Dhabi late last year.
A few weeks ago, Pakistan beat Sri Lanka in Dubai after being held to a draw in Abu Dhabi. Sri Lanka, however, are extremely fragile at present. In all, 56 wickets (from an available 80) have been taken in the two Test matches in Dubai where both sides have always played at least two spinners. Of those, 24 have been taken by seam bowlers, 32 by spinners. Generally, bowlers of all varieties have had to work for their rewards.
Seam bowlers have averaged more than 40 runs a wicket while runs have accrued steadily but utterly unexcitingly at three an over. Spinners have fared slightly better, their figures distorted by Sri Lanka's recent obliging collapses, but overall their wickets have cost 38 runs each. It will be a remorseless struggle.
In Abu Dhabi, there has appeared to be more life, waning as the match has gone on. Of the 51 wickets taken by bowlers, 30 have fallen to seam, 21 to spinners who have taken their wickets every 117 balls.
Sri Lanka forced a draw in October by making 483 in their second innings in 168 overs. The sort of tactics that may be required are hardly designed to bring back the crowds to Test cricket.
Not that the lack of audiences will prevent a definite frisson between the sides. England and Pakistan ended the 2010 summer with an undisguised mutual loathing, provoked by the match-rigging scandal, which led eventually to the jailing last month of three Pakistani players.
The tour continued but there was obvious acrimony. Both sides will want to forget. It may not be easy.
England squad: A J Strauss (capt), J M Anderson, I R Bell, R S Bopara, T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, A N Cook, S M Davies, S T Finn, E J G Morgan, M S Panesar, K P Pietersen, M J Prior, G P Swann, C T Tremlett, I J L Trott.
Series schedule: First Test: Dubai, 17-21 January; Second Test Abu Dhabi, 25-29 January; Third Test Dubai, 3-7 February 3-7.
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Spin: Graeme Swann is integral to it all but his partnership with a recalled Monty Panesar, in a holding role, will be crucial.
Pace: The variety of pace on unknown pitches – bang-it-in, conventional swing, reverse swing – must not be underestimated.
Batting: England have built their empire on amassing large totals. More of the same at a faster tempo than the pitches are wont to permit is essential.
Catching: There has been a noted decline in chances snaffled, possibly caused by fatigue. They need to get their mojo back.
Preparation: England's build-up to their Ashes triumph was impeccable. The players training now in various camps and the fortnight in the UAE before the first Test will be similarly significant.
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