Expect the unexpected: cricket edition

In times of great upheaval and uncertainty, it is often the small things in life that become the most important, their simple and consistent pleasures giving us the strength to face the day and carry on despite our hardships.

Unfortunately, English cricket is neither a simple nor a consistent pleasure.

Despite recent Test series victories and a steady climb in the world rankings, the England Test team haven’t been overly consistent of late. In fact, they still lie one place behind Pakistan in the rankings at no 4.

Not too long ago they were losing to the West Indies and Sri Lanka. Then they were losing the last Test of virtually every series they played. Then they were thoroughly beaten in the UAE by the Pakistan side that begin their tour proper of England  this week.

And the inconsistency hasn’t exactly been banished since then.

Joe Root’s performance at no 3 has the potential to be the deciding factor in this series.

While the scoreline in the recent series against Sri Lanka paints a very flattering appearance, the reality gives a different picture. Against a distinctly average Sri Lankan outfit, England were 83-5 on the first morning of the tour.

There are deep questions over their top order batting strength. Admittedly Alex Hales seems to have progressed nicely into his role as opener, although his failure to convert steady contributions into match-winning centuries is a slight concern. But the issues for England’s batting are now most pressing in the three spots that follow him.

Joe Root’s performance at no 3 has the potential to be the deciding factor in this series. For the past two years he has been England’s star batter, their most dependable player. His short time at no 3 earlier in his career does not backup this reputation. There is no doubt that he is physically capable of taking on the role – how often has his technique been made to stand facing the new ball from no 4 after an early flurry of wickets? His technique is not the issue.

For England’s sake, let us hope that his mental strength is up to the test of batting at first drop. There is no reason to think it wouldn’t be; he is now one of England’s most senior players, a settled vice captain, a role model, and someone who has dealt with and learned from scuffles with opponents. Did somebody say David Warner?

Then comes the middle order. James Vince failed to make a single contribution during his five innings against Sri Lanka, and given Pakistan’s superior quality bowling attack he will have to find the county form that earned him his call-up sooner rather than later to avoid becoming the under pressure batter in the England lineup.

Mohammad Amir’s skills with the swinging ball have the potential to be deadly in English conditions.

Speaking of county form, let’s hope Gary Ballance doesn’t find his. Despite an average that only climbed to the not-so-heady heights of the mid 30s thanks to an unbeaten century in the County Championship recently, Ballance has – ludicrously – earned himself a recall. It will be interesting, if nothing else, to see how his largely unchanged technique stands up to the test of Pakistan’s pace bowlers. It is hard to believe they will have been quaking in their boots after hearing of his call-up.

It will be fascinating to see how England fit Ben Stokes back into the side once he is fit to bowl again. There are a number of possibilities available – dropping a batsman, harshly replacing Woakes, leaving out the spin option of Ali (and potentially replacing this with a combination of Root and Borthwick) – who knows which one will take the fancy of England’s selectors. Perhaps the only certainty is that there will be a further degree of change to the England side in the coming weeks.

And what of Pakistan’s side?

They come to England a strong team, and a stronger one for the presence of Mohammad Amir. Undoubtedly the senior faces of the team will rally round the quick bowler, and his skills with a swinging ball have the potential to be deadly in English conditions.

But despite their strength, they have fragilities of their own. Many of their batsman have poor records in English conditions. Their own middle order has problems, not least the fact that Misbah-ul-Haq, their 42 (yes, 42) year old stalwart, isn’t exactly as fresh as he was at the start of his career.

Given the relative inexperience of their batting lineup in English conditions, the starting of the series at Lord’s will be a veritable blessing for them. Add on to that the fact that England’s chief destroyer from the Sri Lanka series and no 1 ranked bowler in the world, James Anderson, is missing from the lineup, and Pakistan’s chances start to look a lot better than many people are giving them credit for. Especially when England’s bowling lineup will be completed by a debutant and the recently unreliable Steven Finn.

Make no mistake, England will be challenged by Pakistan. Really challenged. In a series that starts surrounded by unknowns and uncertainties, the only thing to be expected is the unexpected.