England aim at unfamiliar heights in unfamiliar conditions
It looks like I picked the wrong time to come back to Test cricket. I took a break from keeping a detailed eye on it, and a whole rash of close and exciting Tests broke out. Now that I'm back in cricket-obsessed mode, though, we have two Tests going on where the excitement, such as it is, lies in personal milestones: as I write, neither Sri Lanka nor India stand an earthly chance of winning their games and it's merely a question of whether they can stave off defeat.
There is some talk of the visitors being at a great disadvantage because of the unfamiliar conditions, but in India's case it just won't wash: Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, and VVS Laxman have been to Australia often enough before. Sri Lanka have somewhat more excuse, but they have already won a match in the series, so they haven't failed dismally.
Of course, one reason I'm not very sympathetic is that this is going to be the year of unfamiliar conditions for England.
They will be playing nine of their 15 scheduled Tests in 2012 in the UAE, Sri Lanka and India. Should they succeed in their endeavours, it will be impossible to deny that they deserve to be World No. 1; should they fail, we can all start pointing fingers and talk about them being home-track bullies.
It is unfamiliar territory for the fans, for sure. It has been over 50 years since England have been the top Test team for any length of time (they were probably No. 1 briefly at the end of the 1970s when most top players were contracted to Kerry Packer), so it's very odd to have to contemplate each series as one they are supposed to win rather than worrying about how they will frustrate the huge threat posed by the opponents. From the behaviour of Australian and Indian fans during their periods at the top, apparently it is required that England fans indulge in lots of chest-puffing and blowhard declarations of eternal supremacy, but most of us are so out of practice that we have little idea how to go about it. Forgive me if what follows has insufficient braggadocio.
On paper, certainly, England ought to trounce Pakistan in Dubai and Abu Dhabi (I have a horrible temptation to think of these places as Flintstone-land and just call them all Yabba-dabba-doo, but I'll try to resist it). However, as India have been finding these last few months, Test cricket is played on surfaces composed of varying quantities of grass and mud rather than paper, which puts a rather different complexion on things.
While plenty of attention is being paid to England's batsmen's alleged weaknesses against quality spin, to me the real question is how they intend to manage the fitness of their pace bowlers.
The head-to-head match-up between Graeme Swann and Saeed Ajmal ought to be a real treat, but neither of them can bowl from both ends, and England's second spinner is exceedingly likely to be Kevin Pietersen, at least until he discovers an injury which prevents him from bowling. I simply don't see them picking Monty Panesar and dropping a batsman – because the logical one to leave out is Jonathan Trott, as he is the least proficient against spin, and they are not going to do that.
So there looks like being a great deal of work for whichever three of James Anderson, Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad, Steven Finn and Chris Tremlett get picked for any one game. A great deal of work on bounceless pitches with no hope of swing assistance from a heavy atmosphere, in temperatures which pasty Europeans find most uncomfortable.
Consistency of selection has served England very well this last year or so, but I think they are going to have to be very hard-nosed about resting pace bowlers. The Two Andrews, Strauss and Flower, enjoy enough respect from the squad for them to be able to rest Anderson or Broad or whomever without causing major resentment, but expect a lot of transparent flim-flam about bowlers picking up minor niggles while taking five-fors: 5 for 132 is a lot more exhausting than 5 for 48.
Whoever plays for England, I expect an entertaining series. Pakistan know they are underdogs but their pre-series talk has been all about being up for the challenge of exceeding their previous bests, which bespeaks a confidence that was entirely lacking in most teams' hopeful noises about giving the Australians of the last decade a good game.
The general advice in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, apart from “Don't Panic!”, is “Expect the unexpected.” In my copy, the entry for Pakistan Cricket Team repeats that advice in upper-case bold underline. I'm looking forward to it.