Uphill task awaits England in Sharjah - Third Test Preview
In 1989, England hosted their old foe Australia in a six match Ashes series, the start of an English losing streak that ended only in 2005.
During the 1989 series, England used 29 players and throughout the next decade, England resembled a deck of cards, players constantly being shuffled in and out of the side.
Thankfully, the introduction of central contracts in 2000, leading to a more consistent selection policy, has meant far less chopping and changing since.
Overall this is a good thing, players afforded consistent selection to find consistent performance.
However, whilst consistency is good, there comes a time where change is necessary and right. England are at that stage now.
After the Dubai Test, where they lost seven wickets on the third morning, Alastair Cook and coach Trevor Bayliss must take action.
Jos Buttler, horribly out of form with just 156 runs in his last 12 Test innings will make way for James Taylor. Yorkshire’s Jonny Bairstow will take the gloves.
Buttler has a bright future but an average of 30 from 15 Tests is not good enough. The same could be said for Bairstow himself, averaging a touch under 27 from 19 Tests. So too Ben Stokes who averages 30 from 18 Test matches.
These stats suggest talent, and all three of these players have obvious potential, but a middle order comprising all three is not robust enough, especially when pitted against high-class operators like Yasir Shah and Wahab Riaz.
With Ian Bell not at his best – although he showed signs of returning to form in the final innings in Dubai – if Cook and Joe Root do not score runs, England don’t score runs.
The test is set to be harder in Sharjah, where England’s players have found the turn much quicker in the nets than they saw in either Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Last year, New Zealand’s off-spinner Mark Craig took ten wickets in an 80 run win.
Facing Shah on a raging turner will not fill England’s batsmen with joy.
Taylor though is renowned as an accomplished player of spin, busy at the crease, and nimble of footwork.
He deserves his chance after plundering reams of county runs and doing well in England’s one-day side. He also made 61 in the second warm up game before the Tests.
Pakistan’s victory in Dubai was due in part to Shah’s impact but also to Riaz’s supreme display of left-arm fast bowling.
The stamina required to continually propel 90mph plus thunderbolts in the searing heat of The Emirates says much for his desire.
Allied with an ability to control reverse swing and hit regular yorker lengths, Riaz is fast becoming one of the pre-eminent bowlers in the world.
How England handle Riaz and Shah will decide the game. Too often in recent times - Dubai, Lord’s and Bridgetown to name three - England have collapsed when put under pressure. These have not been mini collapses, but full blown catastrophic ones.
It is not a technical issue so must be mental. They don’t seem to be able to turn the tide when the game starts to go against them. In many ways this is natural for a young team learning their way, but it is still happening too regularly for comfort.
Pakistan’s batting on the other hand looks solid and imposing, notwithstanding their blip in the second innings in Abu Dhabi.
Misbah-ul-Haq proved he can still cut the mustard at Test level even at 41 years old. There is a rumour that the PCB have asked him to delay any thought of retirement.
Younis Khan continues on his merry way to 10,000 Test runs and Asad Shafiq already has 275 runs in the series.
The contrast between the consistent Pakistan middle order and the shaky England one is striking.
With Shah back in the side, Pakistan’s attack has more threat. In the first Test, England were able to make the big first innings total that is so vital in these conditions.
Shah and Riaz combined to prevent them doing the same in Dubai, albeit on a more helpful surface for bowling.
England’s bowlers do not have the same threat with either raw pace or high class spin, elements required on docile pitches, but they have performed admirably in tough conditions.
At times in both Tests they have put pressure on Pakistan but spinners Adil Rashid and Mooen Ali will be key on a surface in Sharjah that will offer them plenty of assistance.
Rashid, nearly the hero with the bat in Dubai, had a quiet game with the ball and Moeen Ali has been inconsistent over the two games so far.
The Yorkshireman comes in to his own in the second innings when the pitch wears. To be effective, he needs runs on the board much as he had in Abu Dhabi. England will hope to win the toss and bat so that Pakistan have to bat last and face Rashid when the pitch is at its most lethal.
Injuries will necessitate changes to both attacks: Mark Wood, the pick of England’s seamers in Dubai, has been ruled out for England and Imran Khan is absent for Pakistan.
Liam Plunkett is a like-for-like replacement for Wood but if the pitch is dry and worn, Samit Patel could come in to bowl his left-arm spinners and lengthen the batting line up.
Rahat Ali, who played in the first Test, will come in for Pakistan.
The scenes at the end of the second Test in Dubai, with Yasir Shah diving on the ground and being mobbed by his teammates, shows just what victory means to this Pakistan side. They are a proud team, led well by Misbah, and will be determined for a series win.
They are unable to play at home due to the on-going security situation and the earthquake that shook parts of Pakistan last week was another blow to hit the country.
A series win, whilst insignificant in so many ways to the Pakistani people, may at least provide some cheer. And who would begrudge them that.
Pakistan are favourites, especially as the pitch should turn more than the previous two we have seen.
Shah should enjoy himself and England’s inability to cope with high class spin means it would be one of their very best victories should they upset the odds.
Alastair Cook (captain), Moeen Ali, Ian Bell, Joe Root, James Taylor, Ben Stokes, Jonny Bairstow, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Stuart Broad, James Anderson
Mohammad Hafeez, Shan Masood, Shoaib Malik, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq (captain), Asad Shafiq, Sarfraz Ahmed, Waha Riaz, Yasir Shah, Zulfiqur Babar, Rahat Ali
© Cricket World 2015