On an overcast Tuesday afternoon just over two weeks ago in Malahide, Pakistan found themselves three wickets down for 14, still needing 146 more to prevent Ireland becoming the first team since 1877 to win their maiden Test match. With a worrying recent history of fourth-innings implosions, Pakistan looked set for a defeat so ignoble it would define their time on British shores this tour, and highlight the malaise of their Test team since, indeed, the last time they were in the UK just under two years ago.
Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam carried them through that ordeal, and since then, the post-mortems of sharp declines in Test fortunes are suddenly the opposition’s problems. The series against England began with two Test teams that had, with varying degrees of rapidity, gone from being the best in the world to distinctly mediocre. Pakistan’s – as you would expect – was a more expeditious, less explicable downturn, albeit one hastened by the retirement of two of their greatest batsmen, Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, while England’s arguably has reasons stretching back for a decade: from cricket no longer being on free-to-air TV, to the marginalisation of the County Championship, to their well-documented struggles in replacing Andrew Strauss and Graeme Swann, not to mention Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower.
But the manner of England’s decimation at Lord’s – their fifth defeat in 12 Tests at that holiest of grounds, where previously they had not lost since 2005 – may be the jolt the home side need to assess how far they’ve fallen. In last week’s Test, England were out-thought by a team that isn’t exactly renowned for its meticulous planning, out-fielded by an outfit that has never been a torch-bearer in that regard, and out-batted by a group whose susceptibility to the moving ball is well-documented. After all that, it was hardly a surprise that Pakistan out-bowled them, too. The dismissiveness, almost derisive, with which Sarfraz Ahmed’s young team put England away seems to have set alarm bells ringing at the ECB, with an urgency that wasn’t in evidence even in the wake of a 4-0 drubbing in the Ashes earlier this year.
As a result, Pakistan find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being the steady clinical team from which no drama is expected, while England have faced all manner of uncertainty over the past few days. The only blot on a perfect Test at Lord’s for Pakistan was the loss of Babar to a wrist fracture, while Joe Root’s men have been left to contend with changes in strategy and personnel if they are to avoid a first home series loss to Pakistan in 22 years.
In the spotlight
Dawid Malan managed to escape some of the more excoriating criticism in the wake of the first Test, but he will doubtless be aware of the pressure on his shoulders. Since making his debut against South Africa last July, he has shown flashes of the brilliant talent – most notably in Perth – that got him into the England team in the first place. But the cold hard facts are these: Malan averages 29 with the bat and hasn’t added to the solitary (albeit classy) century that he made at the WACA. Since then, his form has actually fallen away. He has added just 177 runs at 19.7 to his career tally, and has never quite looked an assured presence at the crease – particularly when the likes of Trent Boult and Mohammad Amir have pinned him there with a full left-arm length. He will be acutely aware of the intensifying scrutiny on his place.
It’s hard to single out a Pakistan player in the spotlight; there wasn’t one you could accuse of having a poor Test match without coming off as incredibly churlish. But if you must, you could say that Shadab Khan has had better Tests with the ball. He bowled six wicketless overs that went for 34 in the first innings – albeit in seam-friendly conditions. But his bowling in the second innings, especially when England got a couple of partnerships going, arguably failed to put them under the sort of pressure that Shadab’s wizardry is capable of. He was a shade guilty of failing to exploit the rough his seamers had created. The two wickets he did get had an element of fortune to them, too, with the delivery to Stoneman keeping exceptionally low, and the wicket of Stokes off a long hop more down to the Englishman’s shocking shot selection. Shadab can – and will – only get better, so England have one more thing to be wary of.
As if England didn’t have plenty to ponder already, Ben Stokes is a serious doubt with a hamstring injury, with a late decision expected before the toss. Teenage prodigy Sam Curran has been brought in as cover. Chris Woakes’s chances of starting in Stokes’ absence look good, particularly given his all-round credentials, and though Dom Bess had an indifferent debut, it is unlikely that England will risk starting the Test without a specialist spinner. As for the batting department, Stoneman has been left out, with Jennings returning to partner Alastair Cook at the top of the order.
England (probable) 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Keaton Jennings, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Dawid Malan, 5 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 6 Ben Stokes/Chris Woakes, 7 Jos Buttler, 8 Mark Wood, 9 Dom Bess, 10 Stuart Broad, 11 James Anderson
It is much more straightforward for Pakistan. With Babar Azam out of the side, Usman Salahuddin is set to make his debut at Leeds tomorrow. No other changes are expected.
Pakistan 1 Azhar Ali, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Haris Sohail, 4 Asad Shafiq, 5 Usman Salahuddin, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Mohammad Abbas
Pitch and conditions
The Headingley pitch is usually helpful to seam bowlers, though it does tend to go flat when the sun makes an appearance. The surface for tomorrow looks like one that will abet run-scoring, and deter England from fielding an all-pace attack. Cloudy weather is expected, especially over the weekend, so how well each side bowls could be crucial to the outcome.
Stats and Trivia
England have lost six and drawn two of their last eight Test matches. The last time they won was against West Indies at Lord’s in September 2017.
While England’s last home-series defeat to Pakistan came in 1996, failure to beat Pakistan at Headingley would mean Pakistan haven’t lost any of their last four Test series against England. The most recent one – in 2016 – was drawn 2-2, while Pakistan won the previous two in the UAE by margins of 2-0 and 3-0.
“It was very clear where we needed to improve from last week. We’ve had some good preparation, the guys have really worked hard and now it’s just doing it, going out and proving a point, putting a really strong performance in as a group and showing some pride in the badge.'”
Joe Root expects a response from his team after their humiliation at Lord’s