The series is crucial for Pakistan as far as the World Test Championship is concerned.
Bilal Ahsan Dar
In continuation of the England cricket team’s tour of Pakistan in September and October this year to play seven Twenty20 International (T20I) matches as a preparatory series before the 2022 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, the English team returned to Pakistan to play three Test matches. The Test matches form part of the 2021–2023 ICC World Test Championship.
The three-match series is a historic one for Pakistan, who are set to welcome England for the first time since 2005 to play Test cricket. Rawalpindi will host the first Test (Dec 01 – Dec 05) before the action moves to Karachi (Dec 09 – Dec 13) and then Multan (Dec 17 – Dec 21).
The tour was originally scheduled to take place last year but ECB withdrew unilaterally citing security reasons.
Pakistan has taken some big calls as far as announcement of the Test squad is concerned.
One of the notable omissions is Yasir Shah, the leg spinner. Shah has the fifth most Test wickets for the country, but it appears the selectors are looking for the 36-year-old’s successor. The selection committee has preferred the uncapped leggie Abrar Ahmed over Shah – a move that could pay dividends judging on his ability to confuse batters with his mixture of legspin and wrong’uns. Ahmed may only have 13 firstclass matches to his name, but the 24-year-old has a total of 76 wickets at an average just north of 25 and, on recent form, he looks a solid selection.
While Mohammad Nawaz and Nauman Ali are likely to be the two main spinners, Ahmed will provide skipper Babar Azam with another option should conditions suit the slower bowlers.
Shaheen Afridi, who is nursing a knee injury, isn’t a part of the 18-member squad. Haris Rauf, who has made a name for himself in white ball cricket, is all set to make his Test debut. It would be interesting to see whether Rauf can translate his white-ball form into Tests. Rauf’s ability to swing the old ball could be a weapon that Babar would love to exploit.
Apart from Rauf, the likes of Faheem Ashraf, Mohammad Wasim Jr and Naseem Shah are likely to battle it out for two or possibly three pace spots in each Test.
In the batting department, Fawad Alam has been dropped – maybe for good. While many believe the southpaw is again hard done after his impressive return to the national team a couple of years back, selectors seem to be unimpressed with the 37-year-old’s recent form managing just 33 runs from four innings against Australia earlier this year and want to move forward and give opportunity to someone like Shan Masood for his excellent run in the last six months or so. Masood is more likely to play in the middle order than at his specialist position of an opener. The team, in all likelihood, will open with Imam-ul-Haque and Abdullah Shafiq. Azhar Ali at number three is a confirmed spot, but would be under the scanner for the lack of runs in the last few test matches. Babar Azam at four will have to keep his great run in the red ball format going on to claim the topmost ICC rank.
While Mohammad Rizwan is an automatic selection, the inclusion of former captain Sarfaraz Ahmed is a little surprising. Sarfaraz hasn’t played a Test since he featured against South Africa in Johannesburg at the start of 2019, but the 35-year-old has been in great form with the bat recently in the domestic circuit. The right-hander is fresh from a century for Sindh in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and has already amassed 394 runs in that competition this year at an average of almost 44.
The series is crucial for Pakistan as they attempt to stay in touch with the leading teams and finish inside the top two and earn a place in the next year’s World Test Championship final. Pakistan currently sits in fifth place on the World Test Championship table with a win percentage of 51.85 and still have six Tests remaining during this World Test Championship period – three in this series against England and then three against New Zealand over the New Year to try and earn a spot at next year’s final at The Oval.
On the other hand, the England team led by Ben Stokes arrived in Pakistan early Sunday (November 27). England team played a warm-up game against England Lions in Abu Dhabi to give final touches to their preparation for the series.
Given England’s success over the summer, their XI has only a few spots left open. The position of Zak Crawley’s opening partner will likely be filled by Ben Duckett who looks to have edged out Keaton Jennings. In the battle for the No.8 basher/part-time spinner role, Jacks looks to have an edge over Livingstone having outperformed him in the warm-up, smashing 84 off 48 to Livingstone’s 36 off 23, and taking 2-69 from 13 overs compared to Livingstone’s 2-80 from eight. However, that will still be a tight call.
Notably, the English selection committee has also added an 18-year-old leg-spinner, Rehan Ahmed, to the squad for the historic series. He will also become the youngest Test cricketer for England if he gets to make his debut. Meanwhile, following the announcement of the squad, a video of a 13-year-old Ahmed with Shane Warne, where he is seen receiving praise from the Australian great, went viral on social media. However, England’s Director of Cricket, Rob Key said, “This is the best way to aid his development. He is a serious talent, but he might be four or five years off from being the finished product. He is nowhere near the finished article at the moment.”
It would be interesting to see if England would carry on with the BazBall approach and stay true to their blueprint of the last six months.
Traditionally, Pakistan offers spin friendly tracks, however numbers show that in Pakistan’s recent home Test matches against Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa and Australia, the quicks have bowled almost 60 per cent of the overs and have a superior average and strike rate compared to the spinners. Reverse swing would remain a major weapon and both the teams have potent bowling attacks to exploit the conditions well.
What makes this series all the more special is that the English skipper Ben Stokes has decided to donate his match fees from the series towards flood relief work in Pakistan.
Bilal Ahsan Dar is a blogger and cricket buff.