Exactly what England need: a reality check

One summer does not a champion outfit make, and now Team Vaughan face a very different test of their ambition
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England begin the rest of their lives on Saturday. It is likely that nothing they do again on a cricket field will match either their great deeds of last summer or the emotions they stirred in those watching. But when the incredible story is retold, as it will be repeatedly down the years, human nature will demand to know what happened next, and the First Test against Pakistan in Multan will start to provide the answer.

In a way, events after the Ashes will come to define the team led by Michael Vaughan more than the triumph itself. They beat the world's No 1 side on clear merit, but do they have what it takes to go on from that to be themselves undisputed champions? It is becoming more than a conviction that England, with six successive series victories, and Australia, with only one drawn rubber interrupting a winning run of 13 before last summer, are for now much superior at the longer form of the game to the rest of the 10 Test nations.

For England at least, that notion (not quite supported by an International Cricket Council's league table which has Australia on 127 points, England on 119 and India on 112) will be measured in the subcontinent this winter. Three Tests in Pakistan in the next five weeks will be followed by three more in India early next year. Win both series and this team will bear comfortable comparison with any that have preceded them.

Pakistan have been fairly ropey at Test cricket recently, winning none of their past five series and failing for two or three years before that to paper over the cracks left by the decline and retirement of their great fast bowlers Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Still, England will underestimate the opposition at their peril, and since their coach, Duncan Fletcher, does not do underestimation, this gives them a decided advantage.

It would be wise to forget the received wisdom that the draw is usually the favourite result in Pakistan because of their dead pitches. True, 66 of the 138 Tests staged in the country, and 17 of the 21 involving England, have ended in draws, but that was then and this is now. Only one of the last 14 matches has not produced a positive result.

Multan is largely unfamiliar to most international cricketers. It has other prestigious claims to fame. It is generally held to be the oldest surviving city on the subcontinent, going back some 4,000 years, was captured by Alexander the Great 2,300 or so years ago and possesses an array of ornate shrines and mosques. The British took over in 1849 in what became known as the Second Sikh War. During the negotiations preceding the bloody battle the British commander, Lt Alexander vans Agnew, was murdered, so listeners to Test Match Special can expect the occasional reference from their cricket correspondent, Jonathan of that ilk.

Thereafter the British tended to ignore Multan during their subcontinental rule, and it was not until Partition that the town revived. There is now a move afoot to make it a world heritage site, which apparently has nothing to do with the fact that two of the country's greatest cricketers, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis, hail from Multan.

Inzaman, the unlikely but well-liked captain of the side for two years, will be as animated for this fixture as he ever gets on a cricket field. There have been only four Test matches at Multan (on two grounds, between 1980 and 2004), and Inzamam made hundreds in two of them. It might have been three but for a dodgy bat-pad decision against India early last year when he was on 77.

That match may or may not give a clue to the likely nature of the surface. Pakistan requested and got a shaved pitch, which could be deemed a tad unnecessary in that neck of the woods, given Multan's reputation: if all Merchant and Ivory had wanted was eponymous justification, they would have filmed Heat And Dust there.

India made 675 at slightly more than four runs an over, with Virender Sehwag becoming their first triple centurion, and won the match by an innings. Three years earlier, five Pakistani batsmen made centuries - only the second example in one Test innings - against Bangladesh. It is safe to assume therefore that it will not be a greentop on which old-fashioned English seam will prosper. Low and slow as a Peggy Lee torch song, more like. But India made their runs at such a lick they had time to bowl out the home side twice

The main conundrum for England will be whether to play one or two spinners. Given the conditions they will probably opt for the latter. However Pakistani pitches have changed over the years, and whatever their team's English coach, Bob Woolmer, is plotting, their essence remains intact. To rely on four seamers plus the estimable Ashley Giles (who had a magnificent tour to the country five years ago) would smack of arrogance. Thus Shaun Udal could become the oldest player, at 36 years and 239 days, to make a debut for England since John Childs in 1988, who was 81 days senior. Unless, of course, England were to opt for the doosra-bearing Alex Loudon (25 and a bit), which would be mildly astonishing.

None of the England team has played in Multan before. Indeed, the only team from this country to play there at any time were Nasser Hussain's A side 10 years ago - and they won what was the first match in the series.

Similarly, England's best opportunity of winning the series this time may be to catch Pakistan cold, if that is not a contradiction in such a place as Multan. To do that they must make early inroads to leave the opposition's prodigious middle order exposed. Pakistan have employed eight different opening pairs, involving six batsmen, in the past nine matches. The probability is that Shoaib Malik and Salman Butt, yet another combination, will carry the burden this time.

Six of Pakistan's squad have played fewer than 10 Tests, their bowling talisman Shoaib Akhtar is incisive but untrustworthy. They are raw, and despite Woolmer's wiles they are vulnerable. If England have come down from cloud nine, the rest of their life might well have a lovely start.


Kamran Akmal: The hot prospect

Prodigious 23-year-old keeper with lovely hands and 62 dismissals in 15 Tests, including 12 stumpings, nine off Kaneria. Vital hundred against India showed batting quality. Coach Woolmer rhapsodises about him.

Mohammad Yousuf: The old stager

The batsman known as Yousuf Youhana when a Christian converted to Islam two months ago. Devotion unquestioned, captaincy prospects increased. Obdurate, stylish, punishing, scored two of his 13 hundreds against England on their last tour.

Danish Kaneria: The spin wizard

Will lead spin attack five years after making debut against England. An accurate leg-spinner, he has taken six five-wicket hauls in 17 innings. Slight worries about his attitude may explain the recall of Mushtaq Ahmed as a reminder.

Shabbir Ahmed: The tiro quickie

Reported thrice for dodgy action. Has been cleared, but will be under scrutiny. Extracts Harmison-like bounce, and if he gets it right poses big questions. High strike- rate, low average, potentially big handful.