Excitement has slowly been building ever since the dates for Pakistan’s upcoming Test and T20I series against England were announced and now the opening Test is almost upon us.
Azhar Ali’s men will finally be seen in action once again and fans wait impatiently to once again see their heroes out on the field.
There is cause for excitement too, with Pakistan having impressed during their last few visits to England.
The Men in Green memorably won the 2017 Champions Trophy in England before their Test series next year in 2018 ended in a draw.
The side’s stint in England last year was not as fruitful, with the side being embarrassed in the four-match ODI series that led up to the World Cup before being knocked out at the first hurdle during the grand event.
On the flip side, the regular tours of England over the past few years mean that most of the players in the side have become used to the conditions.
Add to that the one month of preparation that they have had along with the experience of county cricket that several players boast and there is no reason why conditions in England should surprise the Men in Green.
However, there are still several questions that hang over the side.
The 2019-20 season was not particularly promising for Pakistan as they were plagued by some uncertain form, winning two and losing two of their five Tests.
They were even more woeful in T20Is, the format in which they were the number one side for a record amount of time not that long ago. Five defeats and two wins in eight T20Is, with one of them ending in a no-result, is nowhere near acceptable form from a team that was blowing away all comers under the leadership of then skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed.
Head coach Misbah-ul-Haq has to decide along with the two captains whether to go with experience or youthful exuberance, and whether to stick with the players that helped the side claim home wins against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh or go with players more suited to the starkly different conditions in England.
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has also brought in legendary cricketers Younis Khan and Mushtaq Ahmed as batting and spin bowling coach respectively for the tour. Only time will tell whether this will be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth or of four hands being better than two.
The current form of Test skipper Azhar Ali has been patchy at best and his previous performances in England have not been anything to write home about either. Azhar has played 12 Tests in England, more than any other place aside from the UAE, but averages only 29.68 and has managed just one century during that time.
The Pakistan top-order must perform against England’s brutal pace battery, especially since the saliva ban means negotiating the older ball is much easier now as compared to the shiny new one. That is easier said than done against the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes when the ball is swinging around and England have their tails up.
On the other hand, the likes of Fawad Alam, Babar Azam, Imam-ul-Haq and Muhammad Rizwan have precious little experience of facing the red ball in England.
The warm-up games showed once again that Pakistan’s strength lies in their bowling attack, with young guns Naseem Shah and Shaheen Shah Afridi impressing in favourable conditions.
Another question that needs answering is whether Pakistan will stick with the form of Muhammad Rizwan or whether they opt for the experience of former skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed. Rizwan has never played Test cricket in England but Sarfaraz’s track record of 224 runs at an average of 24.88 doesn’t inspire confidence either, especially when he only is yet to score a half-century in 10 innings.
New rules and lack of a crowd mean that there will still be some element of the unknown for the Men in Green but the players and the coaches have all talked about the importance of mental strength during this series. They have talked the talk, now it is time to walk the walk.