Ed Hawkins: Babar and Pakistan set to make England sweat

Babar Azam
Babar Azam is a class act

Our cricket correspondent casts his eye over the touring squad ahead of the start of the first Test from Southampton on Wednesday...

"The potential for Pakistan collapse, though, is not to be underestimated. This lot have some stinkers up their sleeve and it would be a surprise if the old on-two (Anderson-Broad) does not do a vintage job at some stage"

Tougher challenge for England

England's 2-1 victory over West Indies could prove to be the perfect tune-up for the main challenge of the summer - three Tests against a Pakistan side who are a notch or two up in quality but have much the same personality as a team.

The Windies pace attack was formidable enough to take a chunk out of England in the first Test in Southampton and were these normal times, with a proper rest between Tests and an ability to call-up replacements, England may not have got over the line. And the less said about Jason Holder's decision (twice!) to bowl first in Manchester the better.

Pakistan cannot be relied upon to not make similar ricks. Nor can it be entirely ruled out that their batsmen will not get stuck in the crease like West Indies. But, and it's a big but, they do posses significantly better batsmen, a formidable seam and swing pair and a world-class spinner. Remember, in 2016 and 2018 England have failed to beat Pakistan at home.

In Babar Azam, Pakistan boast the batter who is set to make the Big Three the Big Four (awaiting irked email from Marnus Labuschagne's agent). Make room Messrs Smith, Kohli and Williamson.

Babar has 1,234 runs in the last two years at an average of 64.9. To put that in context no player with 1,000 runs in the study period has a better average apart from Steve Smith (71).

At 25 he has already been called the Pakistani Kohli. Like, Kohli, though, there will be fears that a seaming and swinging ball in England will be a severe test of his technique and temperament. Can both hold up?

Well, Babar is not an ingenue in English red-ball conditions. He shone for Pakistan A on a tour in 2016 scoring 45-61-31-66* in his four innings at Leeds, Leicester and Worcester, venues which would hardly be described as roads. He averaged 47 in New Zealand in Tests in 2016 but dipped slightly on a tour of South Africa in 2018, averaging 33.

Canny Babar

Last year he hit a century and 97 Down Under in two Tests. Ordinarily that is irrelevant form for an English summer. But the 97 came at Adelaide against a pink ball. And those who watch him in limited-overs and Tests may have spotted he adapts his technique, unlike some. The front foot is planted in a straight line in the former but he steps towards and across in the latter.

Babar is likely to be sandwiched at No 4 between Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq. This may highlight how England had it easy against West Indies. Azhar is a high-quality player while Asad has more stickability than Loctite.

Sportsbook, unsurprisingly, make Babar 11/4 jolly for top Pakistan series bat with Azhar at 3s and Asad at 6s. The latter is of interest because has a ton and two fifties in England in ten innings so that experience stands him in good stead.

The potential for collapse, though, is not to be underestimated. This lot have some stinkers up their sleeve and it would be a surprise if the old on-two (Anderson-Broad) does not do a vintage job at some stage.

Pakistan, though, have their own bowling threat and they are an exciting crop. Mohammad Abbas, an artist with a Dukes ball, destroyed England at Lord's in 2018 with eight wickets. Mohammad Amir took five in the same game. He is not involved these days, much to England's chagrin because his replacement is a significant upgrade. Shaheen Shah Afridi is a left-arm menace who could terrorise England's top order.

Afridi is only eight Tests into his career. He has an average of 27.9 and a strike rate of 53.5. The elasticity in his action and wrist control is good enough to suggest that he will sustain and force those numbers down.

The final pace-bowling slot is likely to be a fight between a veteran and a young tyro - Wahab Riaz or Naseem Shah.

Wahab clings on

You're right to wonder how Wahab keeps getting selected, particularly after he retired from Tests. But then this is Pakistan.

He's not worth his place on numbers. He has played once in two years and his career average is, well, average. He takes a wicket every 60 balls and each one costs 34. Wahab gets the nod as a workhorse, allowing them to pick an extra batter.

Naseem is just 17 and will no doubt be used as a shock bowler. If he plays, Pakistan may use Faheem Ashraf or Shadab Khan in the all-rounder slot with the impressive wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan batting at No 6.

With rotation likely, possibly the only bowler who should play all three Tests - remember they are back-to-back - is spinner Yasir Shah. The 10/3 that Betfair Sportsbook offer could be value for that reason alone, although critics will point out his form has dipped significantly and he is unlikely to get the same joy from English pitches as the burners in the UAE. Abbas is 11/4 jolly and Afridi 3/1.

What we learned from the England-West Indies Test was the huge advantage the home team have of shuffling their pack and calling on a greater number of players. That is likely to be telling again. The 4/1 about England winning 2-1 is a series score which catches the eye.

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