Pakistan have been frequent Test visitors to England since 2016 and, as far as statistics go, the most successful ones too. They have toured the English shores twice, in 2016 and 2018, and are now gearing up for another showdown.
On both previous occasions, they have taken the hosts head-on, battled it out till the last match, and managed to draw the series. Hence, coming out unscathed as compared to the teams who visited during the same span but got battered at the hands of the Englishmen.
Since 2016, England have played eight Test series at home, only three of which ended with neither team grasping the silverware. The rest have been exemplifications of sheer dominance. Sri Lanka were outplayed in 2016, South Africa were overhauled in the following year, and India were hammered 4-1 in 2018.
Pakistan, however, has remained the one team that has resoundingly encountered fire with fire without batting an eye, a team that has adopted brilliantly to the demonic English conditions. Their players have always looked well-settled in their grooves when playing a Test match in England.
Boasting precious experience and nurturing a youngsters-filled bowling battery that is thirsting to bowl on English troughs, Pakistan are once again in the zone to clamour and wrestle for a series win which has been a long time coming now.
They would be yearning to end this series drought that extends back to 1996. In this piece, we delve into some of the reasons we think give Pakistan that slight edge over their hosts and may well nudge them over the line, this time around.
1. England's 'fragile' top-order
One obvious weakness in England's Test side is their unsettled top-order that has copped some severe criticism for its frailties since Alastair Cook brought down the curtains on an illustrious career back in 2018. In the last 20 months or so, England have utilized six different combinations at the top of the order but only Rory Burns seems to have secured a spot, thus far.
Hanging around, seeing the shine off, doing the hard yards – these are cliches about opening the batting in Test Cricket that England's batters haven't been following. A small recap of Jason Roy's dismissals in the last year's Ashes series would affirm this.
There, however, has been a slight indication of bullheadedness being showcased by England's top-three with the induction of the likes of Dom Sibley and the promotion to the top-order for the likes of Joe Denly. Still, though, a lot needs to be done for the team to officially move into the direction of obduracy and perseverance rather than strolling out with an all-guns-blazing approach.
Pakistan's Test captain, Azhar Ali, and vice-captain, Babar Azam, have both touched upon this fragility of the England's batting line-up, confirming that there would be an added emphasis to exploit this blemish and turn it into an Achilles' heel for the hosts:
“Looking at their batting, their top-order has been fragile for some time since Alastair Cook retired. They have tried a lot of combinations lately and might be looking a bit more settled, but they haven't been really confident with it. So there is something for us in it to look at."
2. Pakistan's young-blooded pace battery
The talk of Pakistan's young fast-bowling pair of Naseem Shah and Shaheen Afridi spearheading their pace battalion in the series against England has been buzzing across the cricketing circles.
Some former Pakistani cricketers have even come forward to express their disappointment and lewdness regarding the selection of such a young-blooded pace battery, terming it as a primary cause for Pakistan's potential series loss in England.
However, as the pace duo has showcased since emerging on the international scene and by garnering some excellent repute, that they can be more than a handful in bowling-friendly conditions.
A classic right-arm fast bowler, Naseem Shah stunned the world with his pace, swing, and his spirited run-up when he made his Test debut at just 16. In the four Tests that he has played for his country, Shah already has 13 scalps, including a five-wicket haul, to his name. Not only that, he is also the youngest bowler ever in the history of Test Cricket to take a hattrick - a remarkable feat. Shah is already seen as a torchbearer for the next generation of Pakistani pacers.
Shaheen Shah Afridi who stands at an imposing height of 6ft 6in is a fairly new face to the team's composition, too. The 20-year old wears a sweet, child-like smile and has a harmless demeanor about him but hides a very adept and aggressive fast-bowler behind all this apparent meekness. Afridi has 30 wickets to his name after 8 Test appearances and he has shot to prominence in such a short time that flattering comparisons between him and the likes of Wasim Akram have already started to be drawn.
With the saliva ban in place, the red cherries in England are expected to do considerably lesser than they used to do pre-COVID19. This, in turn, bolsters the importance of bowlers like Naseem and Shaheen who can really ramp it up and make the batsmen hop around the crease with some extra zip off the deck.
3. Pakistan batsmen's experience in England
As time has progressed and some cricketers have bowed out of the game, the baton of Pakistan's Test side has been passed off to the likes of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq. The positions that were once held by Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq have now been taken up the emerging crop of young, talented cricketers including Babar Azam.
Despite selecting a fairly young team for the upcoming tour of England, Pakistan would feel fortuitous enough to have players in their squad who boast quite a bit of experience of playing in English conditions.
Azhar Ali, the current Test skipper, is one such player and has ample amounts of matches under his belt in that part of the world. He has not only featured for Pakistan in three different series against England in England over the last decade or so but has also represented the Somerset Country Cricket Club in back-to-back Specsavers County Championship seasons.
His numbers, however, have been meagre - averaging just under 30 in the 12 matches that he has played for Pakistan, scoring 653 runs with a solitary century to his name. With the departure of Pakistan's two senior-most cricketers a couple of years ago, the onus is on Azhar to turn around things with his willow and really showcase himself as a true role model for the junior batsmen in the team.
Azhar's partner in crime, Asad Shafiq, who has been around for a while too, has somewhat recorded better performances on English shores. In the 6 Tests that he has played there, Asad has registered 365 runs at an average of 36.50, including a staggering ton at The Oval back in 2016 which assisted Pakistan in leveling the series.
Shan Masood, Sarfraz Ahmed, Babar Azam, and Imam ul Haq are amongst others who have had some sort of outing as far as Test Cricket in England is concerned. Babar got retired hurt on 68* in the first innings of the first Test of the 2018 series and, unfortunately, couldn't return for the rest of the series. He would be raring to get out there again and resume where he left two years ago. With his recently-found resurgence in the longest format, one can only guess that he has a vital role to play if Pakistan are to upset England in their backyard.