It would be all too easy for England, trying not to bask too indulgently in their status as officially the best Test team in the world, to slip up in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi over the next few weeks.
In particular they have only two warm-up matches – there really should be three – so they will be at their most vulnerable when the first Test starts in Dubai on January 17.
That gives them little time in which to recreate the formidable hardness of their cricket since the weak start to the last Ashes series at the Gabba little more than 13 months ago. Immediately locating the aggression of their fielding, the accuracy of their bowling and the positive intent of their batting will be difficult, especially on pitches likely to be docile and given the historic caution that has prevailed between these two countries.
Controlled aggression, however, has been the feature of England’s cricket under the two Andys, Flower and Strauss, and they cannot afford to be too wary now as they feel their way back after the welcome break since their 4-0 home success against an unlucky, injury-handicapped India.
Pakistan have two small but significant advantages. They have recent experience of the pitches in Dubai and Abu Dhabi and they have played more recent cricket too, building a quietly impressive record since the disgrace and embarrassment associated with the spot-fixing exposed by The News of the World on the 2010 tour of England.
Rather than a legacy of bitterness from that series the realistic hope, as expressed by Andrew Strauss before England’s departure, is that the forthcoming matches will be played competitively but in the proper spirit.
Pakistan have won three, drawn two and lost none of their five Test series since Misbah-ul-Haq took over the captaincy from Salman Butt. In Saeed Ajmal he has an off-spinner who can beat the bat on both sides. He will be hoping, too, that the left-arm fast-medium Junaid Khan can overcome an abdominal strain in time to take the new ball in the first Test. Wahab Riaz’s recall suggests that he may not, but there is always Umar Gul to provide bounce, aggression and reverse swing.
Strauss, who scored only 44 runs in four Test innings on England’s last tour of Pakistan five years ago before returning home to witness the birth of his first child, will certainly not have forgotten that it was Inzamam-ul-Haq, Shoaib Akhtar and others who first put a spanner in the works of Michael Vaughan’s Ashes-winning side of 2005, ending their run of six successive series wins. Pakistan won 2-0 and Vaughan had to go home with the knee injury that eventually finished his career.
It is a melancholy fact that 18 of England’s 24 away Test matches against Pakistan, since Ted Dexter and Imtiaz Ahmed captained their countries in the inaugural series in 1961-62, have been drawn. England won the first match in Lahore in October 1961 but have managed only one more victory since – the extraordinary occasion in Karachi when Nasser Hussain enjoyed one of his finest hours as England scrambled home in the darkest light in which I have ever seen first-class cricket played.
Recent Test cricket has been vibrant, with exciting new bowlers emerging all over the place and lively pitches producing unpredictable games that have seldom reached the last day. This series, however, is likely to be more pedestrian in conditions quite similar to those familiar to Pakistan. Winning matches on slow, solid pitches is never easy.
There was a result in Pakistan’s favour in their last ‘home’ series against Sri Lanka last October – a nine-wicket victory in which Saeed Ajmal’s off-breaks and doosras gained him eight wickets for 113 in Dubai – but the matches in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah were drawn.
Beating Sri Lanka despite the prolific batting of Sangakkara was a notable achievement for a Pakistan team that has started pulling together under the experienced 37-year-old Misbah. They have now won six and drawn five of the 12 Tests that they have played at home and away since the notorious Lord’s Test that completed their series under the disgraced Salman Butt in 2010.
The good news for England is that they expect to win Test matches these days. They have been involved in only two drawn games since saving the first match of the Ashes series in Brisbane 13 months ago, both against Sri Lanka last season and both rain affected. Otherwise it has been a glorious record, earned by a mixture of relentless off-stump bowling, well directed bouncers when computer analysis tells the fast bowlers they might be effective, reliable slip catching and assiduous run gathering, notably, of course, by Alastair Cook.
It is remarkable, and I am virtually certain unique, that as many as 15 of the 17 men who played in the first-class section of last winter’s tour of Australia should have been called upon again. Ravi Bopara takes over Paul Collingwood’s role as batsman and fill-in medium-pacer, in the squad if not the likely Test eleven. Otherwise only the injured Ajmal Shahzad has fallen out of favour.
A certain historic caution may prevail, for different reasons on either side, over the next four weeks but England’s policy should surely be to try to put the foot on the accelerator as early as they dare to without missing any corners. Danger on slow pitches comes only if a side is bowled out cheaply in the first innings, so it will have to look like a potential ‘bunsen’ for Eoin Morgan to be left out to enable Monty Panesar to be given his first Test since Cardiff, 2009.
Equally, in a team notable for its fast bowling giants, Steve Finn or Chris Tremlett is only likely to displace one of the trio currently in possession – James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan – because of injury or a surface that looks unexpectedly fiery.
*Christopher Martin-Jenkins is a former editor of The Cricketer