Winner of Swann v Ajmal duel will turn the series
Whatever happens in the desert in the next three weeks, it will not happen quickly. Trains of camels, weighed down by the chattels of mankind, would move more quickly than the Test series being played in the UAE.
Everything points to a grim and gruelling duel between England and Pakistan in which chances and probably entertainment, if not skill and fascination, will be at a premium. Runs may well come at under three an over, which is more or less a starvation diet in these wham-bam days.
Wickets will be harder to come by still and will depend on the new ball, the reverse swinging older ball and the wiliness and trickery of the spin bowlers. In all, it is likely to take five overs longer for a bowler to take each wicket than it does, say, in England.
Both sides, especially Pakistan, are desperate to forget a contentious past. In a perverse way, three boring draws in which everybody shakes hands and smiles at the end of it might be welcome, if eminently forgettable.
Andrew Strauss, England's captain, said yesterday: "Given the history between the two nations it is important we recognise our responsibilities. But ultimately we're not treating it any differently to other series and I don't think we should do. You go out and play good, hard cricket and you make sure that things don't escalate into something more serious. It's about both teams recognising their responsibilities to play the game in the right way. Any idea that it won't be a competitive series is well wide of the mark. It'll be a very competitive series between two very good sides who are hungry to improve and get better. Come the first ball there'll be a lot of competitive juices flowing."
England appeared to have survived two late injury scares. Stuart Broad, who hit a ball on to his right ankle while batting in the nets, bowled without discomfort yesterday. No sooner had Broad gone through his paces than Ian Bell was hit on his left wrist while batting in nets and sent for an X-ray.
The ball which did the damage rose from a length and was delivered by, of all people, the England batting coach, Graham Gooch, using his slingshot device known as the sidearm. Nothing showed up and although it was painful Bell was confidently expected to play last night. But it was the sort of last minute knock to send shockwaves through the squad.
Bell could easily be one of the key players of the series, taking England to substantial totals late in the innings. But like everybody else he will need patience and resolve. Test cricket always requires those commodities but in these conditions you can double it.
There are bound to be intriguing contests within the contest and none will be of more significance to the outcome than that between Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal. Since they last played, in England in 2010 when everything was overwhelmed by the match-rigging incident in the last Test, Ajmal has had much superior figures to Swann.
His 53 wickets in his nine Tests since the end of the last series between the sides have come at a wicket every 63 balls, costing 26.23 runs apiece. Swann has 40 in 12 matches with a strike rate of 69 and an average of 35.22. But now they are playing on a level playing field.
England probably have the superior batting line-up (with a phew of relief when Bell was declared fit) but despite the need for other bowlers to do their share, the feeling is not easily discarded that whoever prevails between Swann and Ajmal will be on the winning side.
Three draws are possible. Of the five Test matches in the UAE in the last 15 months – there were four more in Sharjah early in the millennium – four have been draws in which 110 out of a possible 160 wickets have fallen.
The problem may well be the sheer time needed to take wickets and that is why England's catching must be out of the topmost drawer again, matching their display in Australia last winter. Their fielding generally should be sharper and more precise than Pakistan's and it will be vital. Both sides will do their utmost to carve out a result somewhere along the line. Test cricket has seen some splendid matches lately but it is still fighting for its life. The size of the crowds probable in the next 22 days will hardly do anything to improve its health. Cricket is a big game in the UAE if the publicity given to it is any guide.
It is true that the culture of the country precludes those who would watch it from simply taking time off work but in the city where the International Cricket Council has its headquarters the empty stadiums expected in the next few days are not the most wonderful advertisement. Still, a slew of English fans arrived yesterday, noticeable at practice by their union jack garb, so the sides will not be unaccompanied.
England are accustomed to playing before large audiences but Strauss seemed unconcerned. He said: "The atmosphere might not inspire or inhibit you, but the majority of your inspiration comes from within anyway so I don't think it will play a huge part in determining the outcome of the game."
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