England’s condensed summer of Test cricket resumes on Wednesday and it could get better. The West Indies series was a minor triumph; the bizarre process of Test cricket behind closed doors, though inferior to the real thing, worked (rather better than the one-day internationals against Ireland). After 15 daily episodes the viewer enjoyed getting to know the main characters in the drama; on the West Indies side Jason Holder won hearts and minds, Shannon Gabriel could only be admired for pounding in even though it was evident that his body was rebelling, Jermaine Blackwood was impish and unpredictable, Kemar Roach cheerfully persistent.
Now the drama could be more compelling. Pakistan should provide a greater challenge than West Indies and they have their characters, too. England, despite their poor record in the first Test of recent series, should start with an advantage since they are battle-hardened after three games against West Indies. However Misbah-ul-Haq, now the head coach and a man who commands respect, has expressed satisfaction with the team’s preparations and the hospitality they have received within their bubble.
These training camps clearly work, if well run. One only has to look at some of the county performances and note how three bowlers, who have been training with England’s red-ball squad, have dominated: Ollie Robinson at Sussex and Somerset’s Overton twins.
Pakistan seldom field a conventional side. At Old Trafford they may well play a team with seven players older than 30, a 17-year-old who has already played four Tests and just three, or maybe four, in their 20s. Their batting should be stronger than West Indies delivered, while the bowling has more variety.
They are calmly led by Azhar Ali, now a veteran of 78 Tests who has played far more matches in England (10) than in his own country (three). The recent games in Rawalpindi and Karachi were his first on home turf. His vice-captain and gun batsman is the 25-year-old Babar Azam, who has hit four centuries and a 97 in his past five Tests. None of the West Indians come anywhere near his record or potential. Abid Ali, the opener, became a Test debutant last December at the age of 32 and proceeded to hit two hundreds in his first two games against Sri Lanka. It may be trickier for him against English bowlers armed with a Duke ball but who knows? Here is another cricketer to discover.
How the teams could line up for the first Test at Emirates Old Trafford, 5-9 August
Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Zac Crawley, Joe Root (capt), Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Dominic Bess, Stuart Broad, Jimmy Anderson
Shan Masood, Abid Ali, Azhar Ali (capt), Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Mohammad Rizwan, Shadab Khan, Yasir Shah, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Shah
Second Test 13-17 August
Third Test 21-25 August
The second and third Tests both take place at the Ageas Bowl, Southampton
The bowling lineup may be even more tantalising. The England players will be familiar with three of them but they will have to rely upon TV footage to prepare for Naseem Shah, who took a Test hat-trick in February at the age of 16. Misbah was happy to sing his praises and predict a glowing future for the 17-year-old. Their attack does not lack variety. Shaheen Afridi is left-handed, 6ft 6in tall and 20 years of age. More Mitchell Starc than Mohammad Amir, he began his international career at 18 and now has a good record in his eight Tests. Alongside these youngsters is Mohammad Abbas, an old-fashioned seamer in the mould of Vernon Philander, who has taken 75 wickets at 20.76 in his 18 games for Pakistan.
Supporting the pace bowlers is the wrist spinner Yasir Shah; he has tormented England in the past – and he has occasionally been clobbered by them. It was interesting that Misbah said that he was “encouraged” by the prospect of dry weather and dry pitches; he noted the ball had spun at Old Trafford, even though the spin bowlers’ contributions were not decisive there. Clearly he thinks Yasir could have an impact. It may even be that Pakistan decide to play two wrist spinners. Shadab Khan, 21, almost has all-rounder status and could bat at No 7 albeit ahead of a flaky tail. If not Fawad Alam, now 34, may play his first Test for more than a decade.
These are just some of the cricketers that should entertain us over the next three weeks alongside the increasingly familiar – and hirsute – England players. As ever there will be agonising in the England camp over which XI to pick. The balance of the side will be dictated by the fitness of Ben Stokes. If he is able to bowl his full quota of overs then one would expect Zak Crawley to return.
It would seem perverse to omit Stuart Broad and Chris Woakes after their performances in their last Test, which leaves a choice between Jimmy Anderson and Jofra Archer, with the latter becoming the likeliest to miss out. However this would deny Root the raw pace he may well crave when the sun is out, the ball is old and the pitch is sleeping.