AGEAS BOWL: It has been an historic time for Pakistan. Crowned the No. 1 Test team in the last 24 hours, following their series-levelling victory at The Oval and rain in Trinidad, a magnificent achievement for Misbah-ul-Haq’s side which has overcome so many hurdles to be top of the tree. In Test cricket, they have rarely had it so good. The side that is now in England, however, is not Misbah’s. It’s Azhar Ali’s. And Pakistan’s one-day cricket is in very different shape to their Test unit. They are languishing at ninth in the table and are at risk of missing automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup unless they up their game over the next 12 months. A thrashing of Ireland will have provided a confidence boost, but little can be read into it.
England, on the other hand, are buoyant. Against Sri Lanka earlier this season, they fought back from the brink to secure a tie at Trent Bridge – a result that captain Eoin Morgan gives a lot of significance to – before hurtling to three convincing victories to take the series. The way they chased down 255 without loss at Edgbaston and 308 in 40 overs at The Oval highlighted the form of the batting order. Ben Stokes returns following his calf injury and is likely to slot in at No. 5. That could mean Jonny Bairstow, who has enjoyed the season of his life, making way. Such are England’s riches at the moment, and that’s before you look at the players trying to get into the squad. Pakistan’s one-day batting order has a far more youthful appearance without Misbah and Younis Khan. Azhar needs to define his role at the top of the order if he is not to come under increasing pressure over the next few months. Their bowling attack looks handy, however, with the swing of Mohammad Amir, the yorkers of Umar Gul and the legspin of Yasir Shah. Can Azhar find his inner Misbah and keep the feelgood factor going?
In the spotlight: He’s back on the horse, that’s for sure. Mark Wood bowled the speed of light on T20 Finals Day, working over Joe Root – England’s best batsman – with as exhilarating an over as you could wish to see. “He made me look as if I had my hands and feet on backwards,” Root said. Wood has not played for England since last October in Dubai and has undergone two ankle operations to overcome the problem that left him requiring regular painkilling injections. Now he is slamming his front foot down with confidence, and the ball is responding with vicious results. David Willey’s hand injury creates an opening for Wood’s return in the opening match of the series. Strap in and watch.
With the prospect of the pace in England’s attack – never mind Wood’s potential comeback, Liam Plunkett was touching 90mph against Sri Lanka – it means that Sharjeel Khan should be tested in ways he wasn’t against Ireland. He feasted on the medium pace and gentle spin offered up in Malahide to crack 152 off 86 balls and put himself amongst Shahid Afridi in Pakistan’s fastest hundreds. Much hope is placed on Sharjeel’s shoulders to try and reinvigorate the top order, but England will be eager to test out his back-foot technique – and his ticker.
Team news: Although Willey’s hand injury is not as bad as first feared he will miss at least the first match of the series. Wood is the obvious replacement, although Chris Jordan will come into the equation. If selected, Stokes will play as a batsman only for the first two games but Morgan suggested a third spinner – an ODI for Liam Dawson on his home ground – will also be considered. Both Morgan and Jos Buttler are fit again after recent finger and thumb injuries. Yasir and Wahab Riaz were rested against Ireland and it would be a surprise if both did not return for this match. Wahab could replace Hasan Ali and one of Mohammad Nawaz, who hit a fifty on debut, or Imad Wasim, who bagged 5 for 14, could make way for Yasir. That would mean a longer tail, but four specialist bowlers. Mohammad Hafeez still can’t bowl, but there are more options with the ball in this squad than the Test side with Shoaib Malik, Nawaz and Wasim.
England (probable) 1 Alex Hales, 2 Jason Roy, 3 Joe Root, 4 Eoin Morgan (capt), 5 Ben Stokes, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Adil Rashid, 10 Liam Plunkett, 11 Mark Wood
Pakistan (possible) 1 Sharjeel Khan, 2 Azhar Ali (capt), 3 Mohammad Hafeez, 4 Babar Azam, 5 Shoaib Malik, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 7 Mohammad Nawaz/Imad Wasim, 8 Wahab Riaz, 9 Umar Gul, 10 Yasir Shah, 11 Mohammad Amir.