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July 12, 2006
Already there have been plenty of incidents to talk about and the tour is barely two weeks old. Pakistan were less than impressed at how their warm-up match against England A developed into a meaningless draw, England have a stand-in (and third choice) captain who has just lost five ODIs on the bounce, while the pace bowlers on both sides continue to drop like flies.
Pakistan have moved into second place in the rankings after England's 1-1 draw with Sri Lanka and start the series as marginal favourites. But Inzamam-ul-Haq said England "were still a good team" before adding: "It doesn't matter where you are in the rankings. Every series is a new series and if you play good cricket you'll win." And Pakistan are not at their strongest with Mohammad Asif ruled out and Shoaib Malik (elbow) and Younis Khan (knee) doubtful.
"Unfortunately he hasn't reacted properly to the injection he had so he will be out," said Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, regarding Asif and then added about Malik: "He's struggling. He had a cortisone injection last night so it depends what happens to it as a reaction."
However, Andrew Strauss, in his first pre-Test press conference as captain, was well aware of Pakistan's threat. "The thing about the winter was their unpredictability. They can turn a game round in one session and you can't afford to relax against them."
Despite the distractions of injuries and all the talk over the captaincy situation, Strauss is ready to lead his country. "The selectors have shown a lot of consistency. Fred [Flintoff] obviously captained the side very well in India and did a good job against Sri Lanka. I've said all long I'm very happy to do the job if other people feel I'm the right man to do it. There's no leadership contest or anything like that."
Strauss will have to have his wits about him, the opening encounter is vital. Pakistan have been shorn of their two leading strike bowlers, Shoaib Akhtar and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, for most of the series while Asif misses this Test. But quick bowlers - with the ability to swing the ball both ways at pace - grow on trees around the streets of Lahore and Karachi and they have solid reserves in Mohammad Sami and Umar Gul. Pakistan's trump card, however, is Danish Kaneria who bamboozled England in the winter and will enjoy the drying pitches and extended warm spell.
Despite their injury problems, Inzamam is confident in his team: "The batting is more experienced than the bowling and if we put a big score on the board we have a chance to win this game."
Undoubtedly the strength of both sides is in the batting. If Pakistan so desire they could have Kamran Akmal as low as No. 8 although the loss of Malik and Younis would cause some problems. Salman Butt and Faisal Iqbal will come in at the top of the order if both the others are ruled out.
England's top-order oozes runs, or at least it should do. It only performed in fits-and-starts against Sri Lanka, usually relying heavily on Kevin Pietersen and Marcus Trescothick. With the captaincy armband, Strauss needs to rediscover the art of making Tests centuries while Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell are probably fighting over one spot when Flintoff returns and must convert starts into substance.
It is impossible for England not to look ahead but, while the wheels have not come off the Test side in the same way as the one-day team, they are starting to look distinctly wobbly. They know the winter challenges but must forget what is happening in four months time. It is the here and now which is important and that starts at Lord's tomorrow morning.
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick, 2 Andrew Strauss (capt), 3 Alastair Cook, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Ian Bell, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Liam Plunkett, 9 Matthew Hoggard/Jon Lewis, 10 Steve Harmison, 11 Monty Panesar
Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt, 2 Imran Farhat, 3 Faisal Iqbal, 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Shahid Afridi, 7 Abdul Razzaq 8 Kamran Akmal (wk), 9 Mohammad Sami, 10 Umar Gul, 11 Danish Kaneria
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of CricinfoFeeds: Andrew McGlashan
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