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.
Any self-respecting astrologist predicting either of these things five years ago would have been drummed out of the occupation as a charlatan. 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.
It has been the more wonderful, nay breathtaking, to witness because almost all difficult positions – and there have been a few – have been turned to their advantage. England have not been defeated in their last nine Test series, have won their last six and of the 36 Test matches they have played since Andrew Strauss became captain with Andy Flower at his side as coach, they have won 20 and lost five.
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 was progressing in reasonably orderly and entertaining fashion when three of their players were named by the News of the World in a corruption probe. The captain, Salman Butt, and the fast bowlers, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, were eventually jailed last year for their part in the bowling of deliberate no balls in the fourth Test at Lord's.
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."
Nor was he perplexed by Pakistan's decision to select three players in their Test squad – Wahab Riaz, Umar Akmal and Imran Farhat – who were named during evidence in the recent cheating trial at Southwark Crown Court. None has been charged with any offence either by cricketing authorities or police.
"It's their obligation and duty to pick the best side they think is available to them," said Strauss. "I think the spot-fixing stuff is something we are desperately keen to move on from. I don't think there's any good that can come from churning it all up again and it's time to just concentrate on the cricket. We will play whichever XI is selected.
"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."
Those sentiments were echoed by Pakistan's captain Misbah-ul-Haq, – unbeaten in six Test series – who told the website PakPassion.net: "As far as the Pakistan team is concerned we will just be focusing on playing good cricket. That is our only aim and none of the players need to think about what happened in England in 2010."
But both men should know there is a reason for the perception, frequently reflected in stunning reality. The 2010 scandal may have been particularly spectacular but it was preceded by the ball-tampering scandal in 2006 which led to the abandonment of the Test match at The Oval. Before that there was the unseemly row between England's captain, Mike Gatting and the umpire Shakoor Rana which effectively wrecked England's tour of Pakistan in 1986-87 and led to a virtual suspension of relations.
Back in 1955-56 when MCC sent a team to Pakistan, the tourists thought it would be a wizard prank to pour a bucket of cold water over the head of the Pakistan umpire Idris Begh after a formal dinner on the third night of the match in Peshawar. It caused a diplomatic incident and curtailment of the tour was narrowly averted with extra troops being drafted into Peshawar.
Strauss and Misbah are both sensible, calm leaders but the truth is that when England and Pakistan meet things seem simply to happen.
The cricket seems sure to be much less rip-roaring than England have been involved in lately. Runs will have to be eked out of the surfaces in both arenas and are likely to come at no more than three runs an over, sometimes fewer. It is to Pakistan's undoubted advantage that they have learnt how to play there in the last 14 months in series against South Africa and Sri Lanka.
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 under-estimating 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."
England will have two warm-up matches before the first Test in Dubai begins on 17 January. During the course of these they will presumably decide whether the precious balance of their side needs altering. England have got where they are today with an XI comprising six batsmen, four bowlers and a wicketkeeper.
Their bowlers are unquestionably the best around but it may be that they will need the assistance of a fifth bowler in these circumstances. At the very least the spinning fingers of the reserve slow bowler Monty Panesar may be twitching at the prospect of seeing international action for the first time since 2009.
Whatever, it is vital that England adjust quickly. Strauss spoke of sub-continental conditions but UAE pitches apparently have their own unique properties. It is early in the piece, of course, but the expectation is that England's sojourn in the desert should bear fruit.
Dubai International Cricket Stadium
Opened 2009 Capacity 25,000
Tests Pakistan have drawn with South Africa and beaten Sri Lanka in two matches played in Dubai. The highest innnigs score at venue is 403.
One-day Internationals Pakistan have won 4 out of 8.
Twenty20s Played five, won four. Only loss came against England in February 2010.
Pakistan's record (all formats) P15 W9 L5 D1
Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi
Opened 2006 Capacity 20,000
Tests Pakistan have drawn with both South Africa and Sri Lanka in high-scoring Tests. Highest innings was 584 for 9 dec by SA.
One-day Internationals Won 10 out of 17 matches.
Twenty20s Won one of three.
Pakistan's record (all formats) P22 W11 L9 D2