Ahh, the green, green grass of home.
The pitch at Lord’s must offer a comforting sight to England this week. Well, their bowlers at least. After a couple of winters during which England’s impotency on flat wickets has been laid bare – Andrew Strauss admitted as much on Tuesday – it seems they will be treated to some home comforts at the start of the Test summer. With the possible exception of New Zealand (and Ireland now), nowhere else in the world would offer such a green-looking wicket.
There’s nothing wrong with benefiting from home advantage. It might even be considered perverse not to use it. In these conditions, with their lack of pace mitigated by lateral movement and their lack of top-order solidity mitigated by the relative strength of their lower middle-order, England are tough to beat. A full house crowd will revel in any success they can achieve here and that’s just fine.
But England do have to be careful not to hide behind home success and delude themselves they don’t need to improve. We know that England are strong in these conditions. And we know that Pakistan’s form, since they went to No. 1 in the world at The Oval less than two years ago, has nosedived to the extent they are now rated No. 7. And, such is their inexperience, as many of five of their side could have played fewer than five Tests. They are, as ever, dangerous. But it would be tough to argue that victory against this version of Pakistan – a side shorn of Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Yasir Shah – could, in itself, be used as a sign of progress.
There are caveats to all this talk. For a start, Lord’s wickets sometimes look somewhat greener than they play and, after a couple of hours, this one may well settle considerably. And, just as importantly, Mohammad Amir has the ability to exploit helpful conditions as well as anyone. This surface is no greener than the 2014 Test against India and, despite winning the toss, England lost that game. Both sides – and this is very much a mid-table series – are like boxers with a decent punch and a glass chin.
So what should England be looking to achieve this series? Well, in an ideal world, they need to prove themselves more than home-track bullies. They need to develop an opening partnership, they need to show some top-order resilience, they need to demonstrate there is life in their seam bowling after James Anderson and Stuart Broad and they need to show they have a spinner who can bowl them to victory in the fourth innings of games. One way or another, they need to demonstrate progress.
This match represents the start of Joe Root‘s second year as England’s Test captain. While his first summer in England saw decent results, the fact is England are yet to find the replacements for Graeme Swann, Andrew Strauss and Kevin Pietersen for which they have been searching for several years. And, while Anderson’s enduring excellence is welcome – and he has been as good in the last year as at any time in his career – it has perhaps masked the failure of others to develop in his wake. England’s first year under Root – with defeat against New Zealand tipping the balance – demonstrated little progress.
Perhaps the first thing they need to do in the next few weeks is come to a conclusion about Mark Stoneman. By the end of the Leeds Test, he will have played 12 consecutive Tests. If his highest score is still 60, he may well play no more. Opening in these conditions – and against Amir – is likely to prove tough. But 12 Tests? It’s enough to make a decision.
Alastair Cook is likely to be given a bit longer. But Root needs far more from his most experienced player if England are to improve their fragile batting. His recent form – he has reached 40 just once in his last 17 Test innings – is not sustainable. Root described it as “completely Cook’s decision” if he wanted to play on for another couple of years, but it really shouldn’t be. If Cook cannot provide a meaningful contribution in this series, Root and co. may have a tricky decision to make. Playing 153 Tests in a row – equalling Allan Border’s record for the most consecutive caps – is an outstanding achievement, but past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they say in these parts.
The decision to move Root to No. 3 and Jonny Bairstow to No. 5 makes sense – they have been, with the possible exception of Ben Stokes, England’s most watertight batsmen in recent times – while the return of Jos Buttler, at No. 7, is a hunch based on his obvious natural talent. If he can use these two Tests to establish himself at this level, England might consider that tangible progress. Root, too, knows he needs to turn those 50s into 150s.
The cordon may have slightly new look, too. It seems Jos Buttler will slip into gully and Root will remain at mid-off – where he fielded towards the end of the New Zealand tour – with Cook, Dawid Malan and Stokes from first to third respectively. Stoneman looks likely to remain at short-leg, though he has not been entirely convincing there.
Anyone watching training at Lord’s over recent days would probably conclude we are in for a short Test. It’s not just that the ball nipped around a little. It’s that batsmen on both sides struggled to deal with it. And, with most modern batsmen’s answer to tough conditions tending to be attempting to hit the ball further, it would be a surprise if this game stretches to Monday.
Whatever happens, though, it’s time for England to stop talking of potential and start delivering.