England v Pakistan
Thursday 7 July, 13:00
TV: live on Sky Sports
England are in a dreadful mess of their own making. Having discarded the strict, but surely necessary, bio-secure bubble they have lost an entire squad. One positive Covid test now among the hastily-arranged new unit and the ODI and T20 series against Pakistan will probably have to be cancelled.
Ben Stokes, who wasn't supposed to be fit enough to play for England, returns to lead a hotch-potch selection. There are a clutch of players with experience of the England set -up - Dawid Malan, Zak Crawley, James Vince, Ben Duckett, Saqib Mahmood, Matt Parkinson, Jake Ball, Danny Briggs and Dan Lawrence - instead of genuine List A potentials like Warwickshire's Sam Hain. Alex Hales' punishment continues.
What is particularly striking is how weak the bowling is. Jake Ball, tried and never trusted, Saqib Mahmood, who was awful against Ireland last year, and nearly man Craig Overton do not inspire confidence.
Gloucestershire's David Payne is a good county player but it's a massive step up. Duckett is likely to have to keep wicket or they will go for Middlesex's John Simpson.
It is a guessing game to work out how England will lineup but one suspects they will try to cram as much experience into the XI as possible.
Possible XI Malan, Crawley, Vince, Stokes, Lawrence, Duckett, Gregory, Overton, Parkinson, Ball, Mahnmood
Stuart Broad tweeted his sympathies for the Pakistan analyst, who will now have to tear up his work and start again. It should be their only genuine concern. The gulf in class really should be evident.
As discussed in our series preview, which looks like a relic to a different era now, Pakistan come with a reputation as a fearsome bowling unit. It's not true when they come up against the Big Boys. Not that they face one of them here, of course.
The skill of Shaheen Shah Afridi, pace of Muhammad Hasnain and experience of Hasan Ali is a desperately tough combination for England. Shadab Khan's wily spin likewise. They could pick Usman Qadir, too, to really set the cat among the pigeons.
Their front three with the bat are extremely consistent. Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman and the much-vaunted Babar Azam will be licking their lips. A soft underbelly in the middle-order is an issue. Mohammad Rizwan has had a brilliant 18 months but seems to have lost his way after a disappointing performance in part two of the PSL. Shadab Khan looks a little high at No 6. And Pakistan will pin hopes on the talented Faheem Ashraf bringing his T20 form.
Possible XI Imam, Fakhar, Babar, Haris, Rizwan, Shadab, Faheem, Nawaz, Hasan, Afridi, Hasnain
More good news for Pakistan. In the last five years they have played three at Sophia Gardens and won three. Included in that sequence is their memorable 2017 ICC Champions Trophy semi-final win against England.
In the 2019 World Cup - the same summer when England's squad actually played a List A game - the weaker teams had a real problem. Sri Lanka struggled to 136 v New Zealand, England smashed 386 against Bangladesh and Afghanistan were thumped by South Africa after being bowled out for 125. Fitting that we have a David v Goliath clash again.
All of the data about England's scoring rates - which made them an even money chance for 320 - goes out the window. In the last three years Pakistan have batted first 21 times and have busted 300 in 11 of them. More than 280 has been breached 14 times.
If the runs line is set at over/under 300-310 it looks like a buy. That's if the weather holds. The forecast either side of game day is poor but no wet stuff is currently predicted.
Pakistan too big
Pakistan have been chopped from 3.505/2 to 1.8810/11. It still looks a mighty good price. England are 2.1211/10 outsiders.
Is there anything to put us off betting the tourists? Well, they've had no proper preparation. That could certainly reduce the gap in ability. There will also be worries that Pakistan's appetite for chaos and complacency will cost them.
There's something of a golden rule in cricket betting: never bet this lot at odds-on. Still, making a case for the hosts being value at such skinny odds seems much more of a headache.
Ben Stokes has already been cut from 6/1 to 5/1 for top England bat with Sportsbook. We have to recommend that as soon as possible before it gets any shorter, although in truth we'd still be taking 4/1. If Crawley opens, as he has done for Kent, the 5/1 will be a rick.
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