Strauss climbs the walls in bid to stay on top of world

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Hostilities are still fresh in the memory as England go into alien territory but patience will be needed to keep their No 1 ranking

After the sort of break that could have been billed as once in a lifetime, England return to duty next week. They do so by entering unknown territory against a familiar foe to confront one compelling question: is the magic still there?

The last time England performed in the Test arena they had become irrepressible, rightly having moved to No 1 in the world and being masters of all they surveyed. All the plaudits that have come their way were deserved and their failure so far to transfer their commanding Test form to one-day cricket is of (as yet) small consequence.

Through talent, hard work and vision, orchestrated by the increasingly illustrious combination of the coach Andy Flower and the captain Andrew Strauss, England have become a formidable team, the most outstanding from these shores for at least 40 years. A scintillating victory in Australia last winter was followed by the crushing of India, who had been the world's top-ranked team, in the summer.

It is almost three years since England lost a Test series and they have won eight of their last nine, in which time they have won 20 matches and lost only four. This has been the form of champions.

By the time they completed their 4-0 annihilation of India last August with a serene exhibition at The Oval, England needed a rest from the relentless daily grind that international cricket has become where the only sight on the horizon is the next match.

Instead many of their number had to repack their bags again and head for India for a one-day series, the reasons for which are still cloaked in mystery (it cannot have been to satisfy the desires of cricket fans since the attendances were pitiful) and were predictably hammered.

Since then, apart from the odd foray into training camps, they have been, in the phrase, spending more time with their families. That comes to an end when they set out on Tuesday for the United Arab Emirates – Dubai and Abu Dhabi to be precise – where they will play three Test matches, four one-day internationals and three Twenty20s against Pakistan. And that will be followed by a relentless 18 months culminating in two back-to-back Ashes series.

The tour which begins another hectic schedule is taking place where it is because the unstable state of Pakistan makes playing international sport there unsafe. That alone promises to make it a fascinating event – though tour in this case is almost a misnomer since all the internationals are being played in two places barely an hour apart. By the end of eight weeks the players of both teams might be crawling up their hotel room walls.

There is the additional feature, not easily either overlooked or dismissed despite what both teams might say, of the previous between them. When they last met in the summer of 2010 all hell broke loose after three Pakistan players were fingered in a spot-fixing scandal. All – the captain Salman Butt and the fast bowlers Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif – have since been jailed.

After they were exposed in a newspaper sting, the limited-over element of the tour continued amid increasing fractiousness between the sides. There was overwhelming relief when the thing was at last done and it will take enormous goodwill on the part of both sides to ensure it is all behind them when the First Test match starts on 17 January.

The pitches will be alien to England, not English in nature of course but not sub-continental either. That may offer Pakistan a slight advantage because they won a three-Test series on them against Sri Lanka in October and November.

It is the Test series, which is being played first, that will command most of the attention, though crowds are confidently expected to be minuscule. This is a huge pity and while both sides deserve better, Test cricket, indeed cricket in general, is not part of the fabric in the UAE and the significant Pakistani expatriate community has never warmed to the game.

Playing before small crowds is also unusual for England. Wherever they have appeared in the last 15 or so years – and that includes sub-continental venues – they have been assured of large travelling support even when the locals have been mostly absent. No great swathes of fans are expected this time, saving their money instead for the brief tour of Sri Lanka which follows in March.

England may have to amend the brand of cricket which has taken them to the top. For most of the past two years they have played in an aggressive and attacking fashion, invariably taking the game to their opponents. On the slow pitches of the UAE, offering scant encouragement to any bowlers and with runs accruing at barely three per over, boundless patience may be required.

Whether England change the balance which has helped them to where they are – six batsmen (all ticking), a wicketkeeper (though not just any keeper in Matt Prior) and four bowlers (the most potent combination they may ever have possessed) – is already exercising debate. Whoever bowls can expect to bowl lots and the resurrection of Monty Panesar's Test career after almost three years is entirely possible. Graeme Swann, the world's best spinner, will be the focus of attention. He will love it.

Pakistan have been surprisingly impressive lately but England can be expected to score heavily and quickly enough in at least one of the matches, giving their bowlers time to do their work, to prevail and preserve their cherished status.

Pakistan v England

England A J Strauss (capt, Middx), J M Anderson (Lancs), I R Bell (Warks), R S Bopara (Essex), T T Bresnan (Yorks), S C J Broad (Notts), A N Cook (Essex), S M Davies (wk, Surrey), S T Finn (Middx), E J G Morgan (Middx), M S Panesar (Sussex), K P Pietersen (Surrey), M J Prior (wk, Sussex), G P Swann (Notts), C T Tremlett (Surrey), I J L Trott (Warks).

Pakistan Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), Mohammad Hafeez, Taufeeq Umar, Imran Farhat, Asad Shafiq, Younis Khan, Umar Akmal, Adnan Akmal (wk), Azhar Ali, Umar Gul, Aizaz Cheema, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Talha, Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman, Junaid Khan.

Itinerary

7-9 Jan: v ICC Combined Associates & Affiliate Members XI, Dubai (ICC Global Cricket Academy)

11-13 Jan: v Pakistan Board XI (TBC)

17-21 Jan: First Test, Dubai

25-29 Jan: Second Test, Abu Dhabi

3-7 Feb: Third Test, Dubai

10 Feb: v England Lions, Dubai

13 Feb: First ODI, Abu Dhabi

15 Feb: Second ODI, Abu Dhabi

18 Feb: Third ODI, Dubai

21 Feb: Fourth ODI, Dubai

23 Feb: First Twenty20, Dubai

25 Feb: Second Twenty20, Dubai

27 Feb: Third Twenty20, Abu Dhabi

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