All roads might lead to the Ashes but for England there are suddenly severe obstacles along the way. What might have been an unimpeded passage to Brisbane on 25 November has now become a journey fraught with danger.
In Nottingham and Birmingham, at the Oval and Lord's, Pakistan will present a formidable hurdle in the next five weeks which will not be easily overcome. Perhaps it is as well that with a tour of Australia imminent, England should be so tested.
Since January, when they were hammered by a bristling South Africa in Johannesburg (and had there been a fifth match in that series the smart money would have been on another drubbing), England have played four Tests against Bangladesh. There is a case for Bangladesh being encouraged to play Tests but in each of the matches the only conundrum has been whether England would win on the third, fourth or fifth days.
For long enough it was presumed that Pakistan would be pretty much the same. More talented cricketers, wiser to the ways of the cricketing world, they were never going to be swept aside but the turbulence in their administration, in the dressing room and in their country all had a debilitating effect. They looked ready for the taking.
In the past fortnight, the dressing-room turmoil unabated, that view has significantly shifted. Pakistan took their time getting over the line yesterday in the Second Test but over the line eventually they got. It will have done wonders for their mood.
A question that was continually asked at Headingley during the second Test between Pakistan and Australia concerned which attack any self-respecting batting order would prefer to face. The answer was always the same. Australia's attack has been largely inconsistent and unthreatening, awry in length, especially, and line. Their leading wicket-taker in this short series has been Shane Watson, a muscular bowler who can demand concentration if there is swing around but who should cause no batsman sleepless nights.
This does not mean that Australia will hand the Ashes to England on a golden platter this winter. They might not be the force of yore when their great bowlers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, were around, but since they retired, Australia have lost only three of 17 Tests at home, two to South Africa in a series they astonishingly lost and immediately exacted retribution for by winning in South Africa. But they obviously have some little, local difficulties which they would much prefer to clear up before England come sniffing round. Pakistan's seam-bowling trio, led by the 18-year-old speed merchant Mohammad Aamer, was constantly on the money in Leeds. If conditions helped, they were all convincing in various parts of the match. There will be no cheap runs for England's batsmen and the new ball threatens to provide England's top order with a torrid time. Aamer, packing bags of talent and shrewd beyond his years, has a glittering career ahead of him.
Pakistan's batting remains brittle, though if it were to be shored up by the addition of Mohammad Yousuf, the veteran run accumulator, in the next few days, the difference would be vast and immediate. Yousuf has been gradually manouvering himself into a position to be selected this past few days, rescinding his retirement, and there is a vacancy in the squad with Shahid Afridi having packed in.
It is always difficult to be sure where Pakistan are concerned but it is thought that Yousuf's chance of a recall are much greater than those of the equally accomplished veteran Younis Khan, who has gone home to be with his wife and newly-born daughter after finishing his spell with Surrey.
England will name 13 players today in their squad for the First Test which begins at Trent Bridge on Thursday. The time for resting is done. By the end of this series, they will have a much firmer idea of who they want to line up at Brisbane.
Ian Bell has chosen a rotten time to be injured (though not as rotten, for sure, as it would be were he already in Australia) but it gives the selectors an opportunity to look at other batsmen. Eoin Morgan, who might well have been jettisoned after his two Test matches against Bangladesh, will have another opportunity to show that he can transfer his one-day gifts to the longer game. So, England had better believe, he can.
The bowling line-up begins to give cause for selectorial musing. Jimmy Anderson has been fitful of late, rendered more or less harmless when the ball is not swinging. He was given an important vote of confidence by the captain, Andrew Strauss, last week but England cannot wait indefinitely for Anderson to be the bowler he ought to be. Steve Finn, Ajmal Shahzad, Tim Bresnan and Ryan Sidebottom all have their supporters.
England may opt for a second spinner in their squad today. James Tredwell is the man in possession but Adil Rashid, though out of favour, is the man taking the wickets.
Pick an Ashes team now and Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann would be the only certain members of England's attack. But England do not have to do that. They have four matches in which to re-organise their thinking, four big matches in which reputations can be made with the chance of making a bigger reputation still this winter.
England's likely team: Strauss, Cook, Trott, Pietersen, Collingwood, Morgan, Prior, Swann, Broad, Anderson, Finn.
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