England saw off the challenge of the West Indies in their first bio-secure men’s Test series, coming back from a 1-0 deficit to lift the Wisden Trophy for the final time before it’s retirement to the MCC Museum at Lord’s. After the unplanned hiatus of international cricket, fans are being treated to a buffet of top-class cricket during the English summer. It’s a quick turnaround as Pakistan step into the bubble and face up to the challenge of an English side, whose stock appears to be on the rise.
Pakistan are looking for their first men’s Test series victory on the road against England since 1996; their record stands at drawn three and lost two since that tour. Although they’ve found touring England tricky in the five-day format, they are far from alone in that regard. England have not lost a home men’s Test series since 2014 (v Sri Lanka), enjoying a 12-series unbeaten run in England and Wales (W8 D4 – includes a one-off game against Ireland in 2019).
With that formidable record in mind, fans of the men in green will be looking apprehensive at this matchup. Pakistan have slumped to defeat in each of their last six men’s Test matches away from home (excluding UAE). Their last tour in Australia was tough: they lost both of their matches by innings margins.
Pakistan's Recent Test Tours Away Against England
Azhar Ali’s men will no doubt have taken an envious glance over at the Windies who had the benefit of playing a rusty England side getting used to playing under COVID-19 conditions. The hosts have now shaken off the cobwebs after their lack of playing time and have adjusted to the oddity of performing without their devoted Barmy Army supporters.
A daunting prospect for Pakistan, certainly, but not without its possibilities. Despite the difficulties posed by the pandemic, the tourists have given themselves the best possible chance of pulling off an upset by arriving in the country over a month ago and have based themselves in Derby over the last two weeks – the perfect location to acclimatise to English pitches.
When we assess the make-up of this Pakistan Test side, what immediately jumps out is that they have two very promising youngsters in their bowling attack – Shaheen Afridi and Naseem Shah. When we cast our eye across the current Test cricket landscape, you could make an argument that they are the most exciting prospects (from a seamer perspective) in Test cricket, as the pair are the only bowlers currently aged 21 or younger to have picked up wickets in this format since the start of last year.
When we think of the best bowling partnerships through the ages in Test cricket, it usually sees two bowlers who offer something different to the other. These two youngsters are no different: each present different challenges in the red-ball game for opposing batsmen.
Shaheen Afridi towers in at 6ft 6in and is a left-armer whilst the three-years younger Naseem Shah bowls with his right arm. When looking at their respective pitch graphs, the difference is pretty stark indeed. Naseem Shah has bowled a very consistent line, just outside off stump whilst Shaheen has put the ball in a greater variety of line and lengths during his Test career – a result of utilising his height but also because of his left-arm angle. The consistency of Naseem is extraordinary given the fact he’s only 17-years-old and, although Shaheen impressed in England last summer at ICC Men’s Cricket World Cup 2019 (he became the youngest bowler to claim a five-wicket haul in the tournament’s history – 6/35 v. Bangladesh), it’s Naseem that many observers expect to be the star performer for his side during this Test series. Naseem seems to have a profile which is more conventionally associated with success over in England.
Whilst it’s often pointed out that Stuart Broad has pushed up his lengths in recent times, 59% of his total deliveries in home Tests since the start of last year have still pitched outside off stump and on a good length – a similar ratio to young Naseem. Clearly, the youngster won’t be required to make all that many adjustments and his potential for the tour is highlighted by the fact he bagged a five-fer in Pakistan’s most recent intra-squad game at Derby.
We’ve given due attention to the two young guns in this pace attack, but down let’s focus on one man many people will remember from Pakistan’s last Test tour to England: Mohammad Abbas. That 2018 men’s Test series between England and Pakistan saw Abbas record more wickets than any other bowler, even topping the efforts of the dynamic duo of Anderson and Broad.
Since that time, he’s struggled to replicate his form at Test level, however.
The Pakistan seamer went from having the best average of any bowler to claim 20 or more scalps across 2017 and 2018 (16.6) to picking up just 14 wickets in his six matches in the format since the start of 2019. What those numbers fail to acknowledge however is that he’s spent the last two years plying his trade with Leicestershire in the County Championship, picking up 79 wickets at an average of 20.7. Not only has he been proficient in the wicket-taking department but he’s proved to be effective in keeping batters honest – among the 119 bowlers to log 200+ overs in the County Championship over the last two seasons, only three men (James Anderson, Darren Stevens and Ollie Rayner) have a higher dot ball rate than Mohammad Abbas (80.6%).
Many observers may be willing to downplay the potential impact of Abbas in this series but given his previous performances in England as a Test bowler combined with the time spent in recent years with Leicestershire, we’d advise against writing him off just yet.
Batting in Men's Tests Since 2019
|Batsman||Team||Runs||Total Team Runs||% of Total Team Runs|
|Quinton de Kock||South Africa||964||5194||18.6|
A lot is going to be said over the next few weeks about Babar Azam, who has been in scintillating form with the bat of late. For a number of years now, we’ve been discussing the ‘Fab Four’ of Virat Kohli, Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Joe Root but we are approaching a stage where we may need to re-brand it to the ‘Famous Five’ – it’s becoming impossible to ignore the impact of the Pakistan batsman.
Babar Azam has averaged (a frankly ridiculous) 75.9 across his 12 Test knocks since the start of last year, the highest average of any man to register at least 10 knocks in the format during that period. The context of those runs is equally as important, as he’s been responsible for almost 22% of Pakistan’s total runs in the five-day game since 2019; the highest share any batsman has recorded for one team. His efforts with the bat have been critical for Pakistan.
Babar Azam has scored almost 60% of his Test runs on the off-side since 2019 and has shown a willingness to get on with the game; he has the lowest dot ball rate of any batsman during that timeframe to score 500+ runs (65.7%). What is scary is that despite having an incredible average in Test cricket, he’s actually been fairly unfortunate. Azam has offered 10 catching opportunities since 2019 and opposing players have taken nine of them – he’s only been dropped once. Among the 25 players to face more than 1,000 Test balls since 2019, only David Warner is yet to benefit from a dropped catch.
Pakistan will need Babar Azam and the rest of their batting line-up to up their game when we consider that across the last two men’s Test tours in England, only two batsmen have averaged 40+ for Pakistan (5+ innings) – Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, two players who are no longer part of the playing squad.
One of the players hoping to improve upon past performances against England is Shan Masood. He is in the perfect position to do so, given he comes into the series having logged back-to-back Test centuries (v. Sri Lanka and then Bangladesh). What will no doubt be playing on his mind, however, is that he’s come up against James Anderson in six Test innings and been dismissed by the Lancastrian on all six of those occasions – posting just 15 runs in response.
Whilst all the headlines have been focused on milestones for Stuart Broad and James Anderson – reaching 500 Test wickets and closing in on 600 respectively – it could well be Chris Woakes who is the man we’re all talking about at the end of this three-match series. The England seamer has picked up his 30 Test wickets at an average of just 16.9 versus Pakistan; the best rate of any bowler to have claimed as many dismissals as he has against the men in green. That being said, Jimmy is not far behind him in that list (18.6) and stands as England’s all-time wicket-taker against them in Test cricket. There is no question that the five-man seam attack of Anderson, Broad, Woakes, Archer and Stokes in English conditions is one of the hardest propositions in world cricket right now and whilst there is talent within the Pakistan batting ranks – they’ll need to squeeze out every last ounce of it during their stay.
England are looking to register six Test victories on the bounce for the first time under Joe Root’s captaincy. They finally appear to have a settled top order and their bowling attack, especially at home, is frightening. They can expect to meet more resistance within the Pakistan batting order than they did with the Windies however and their upcoming opponents have a nice blend of youth and experience.
Let the festival of international cricket continue.
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