Experience on Strauss' side for series with history of tears and tiffs

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The last time England played Pakistan at Test cricket it ended in tears, recriminations and the first forfeit in the history of the game. While nobody should advocate the sort of kerfuffle that ensued at The Oval four years ago after the tourists were accused of ball tampering, the series which begins here today will not be entirely straightforward for long.

Pakistan tours of this country, or indeed vice versa, tend invariably to tread a narrow line between controversy and disaster. It makes for a much more fascinating prospect. England remain overwhelming favourites to win in Nottingham and thereafter but Pakistan's nail-biting win in their second Test against Australia last week has changed perceptions.

In home conditions, as Andrew Strauss, the captain, averred yesterday, England have an inbuilt advantage. It is exactly the same on any cricket tour. But six weeks ago, nay a fortnight ago, talk of 4-0 win in the coming month would not have been considered especially loose.

Pakistan had been pushed from pillar to post on their winter trip to Australia, losing all three Tests (and indeed all the one-dayers as well). When Australia took the first Test of the neutral series at Lord's by 150 runs, Pakistan's new Test captain, Shahid Afridi, immediately resigned. The state of turmoil in which Pakistan permanently reside took a turn for the worse.

But somehow, the latest new captain, Salman Butt, led the team to victory in Leeds. They made hard work of it in the end but that was hardly the point: they scraped home by three wickets and this will give them enormous encouragement. Their batting still looks raw but their bowling is suddenly the talk of the town.

If they could defeat England in this country for the fourth time (they have actually lost only the most recent of the past five series, in 2006) that would be a plot line needing no additional twist. England, through Strauss and others, have made a concerted effort to divert attention away from the strengths of Pakistan this week.

England amended their squad yesterday when Ajmal Shahzad withdrew because of an ankle injury he initially sustained playing for Yorkshire. Tim Bresnan replaces him and will almost certainly be 12th man.

Strauss felt yesterday that concentrating on opponents was not particularly helpful but naturally conceded that they had had a look at the bowlers during the two Tests against Australia. If that makes England slightly apprehensive, that will be counter-balanced by the Pakistan batting which will be badly up against it if the ball moves around, as it tends to do at Trent Bridge.

In 2006, Pakistan had a much more experienced batting order (Inzamam ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf all played) but England had still won the series, 2-0 up going into the bitterly disrupted ball-tampering match. This time, their numbers three, four and five are all short of Test caps and knowledge of English conditions when serious bowling is on offer.

"They are more used to the conditions than they would be if it was the first Test match in the series but at the same time it's a hard schedule for them with six Tests in such a short time," said Strauss. "As a batting unit to come up on two wickets against Australia which have done quite a lot does put some negatives in your mind as well as positives knowing you've played in them."

Four years ago, Strauss was ushered into being England's Test captain for the first time because of the injuries to Michael Vaughan, then nominally still the permanent holder of the post, and Andrew Flintoff, the next in line. It went extremely well, Strauss scored hundreds at Lord's and Leeds, and should in hindsight have been the Ashes captain that winter (how different things might have been then and now).

Flintoff gave up the job and the job gave up on him, Vaughan came back and retired, Pietersen was appointed and fell before he was pushed, there really was nothing for it but to return to Strauss. It may be as well to remember this course of events when talking of Pakistan's recent merry-go-round of captains with Butt being the fifth since Inzamam retired in 2007.

Strauss, however, doubtless learnt much from his 2006 experiences which ended in such acrimony when everything was going so well. On the fourth afternoon, with England clawing their way back into the Test match but still behind, Pakistan refused to take the field after tea after they had been penalised five runs for ball tampering.

"It was a bit of a baptism of fire for me," said Strauss. "We played the better cricket throughout the series and deserved to win it but no one wanted to see the way it finished. If I was the full-time captain of England at the time maybe I would have been a bit more pro-active about talking to Inzamam about whether we could get back on the pitch.

"By the time I did have the opportunity to sit down with the match referee and Inzamam and the umpires, they were all so firmly entrenched in their point of view that it became clear very quickly that there was no way to get back on that field."

It seems impossible, as this series starts, to think seriously of anyone but Strauss as England's captain, despite the angst caused by his being rested for the tour of Bangladesh earlier this year. But even now he still does not think he was close to the job proper in 2006.

"It was only a week before the series started that it became clear that Andrew Flintoff wasn't going to be fit for that series," he said. "So I was thrust into it pretty much at the last minute and all I was trying to do was do as good a job as I could. And I suppose because we won the series there was talk about who should be captain on the back of that but I said at the time and I maintain that Andrew Flintoff was the next guy in line, he deserved his chance, and we got heavily beaten in Australia and that would have happened whoever was captain."

But Strauss is captain now – and he will be expected to beat Pakistan this week, next month and Australia this winter.

Trent Bridge details

England (probable): AJ Strauss (capt), AN Cook, IJL Trott, KP Pietersen, PD Collingwood, EJG Morgan, MJ Prior(wkt), GP Swann, SCJ Broad, JM Anderson, ST Finn.

Pakistan (probable): Salman Butt (capt), Imran Farhat, Azhar Ali, Umar Amin, Umar Akmal, Shoaib Malik, Kamran Akmal (wkt), Mohammad Aamer, Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria, Mohammad Asif.

Umpires EAR De Silva (Sri Lanka), AL Hill (New Zealand. Third umpire: M Erasmus (South Africa).

Pitch report Looks like a good firm pitch with some cracks which will not help batting later on. The overhead conditions at Trent Bridge, however, may dictate bowling first.

TV Sky Sports 2 (from 10am)

Weather Sunny intervals, some cloud but should stay dry. Max: 21C

Comments