England focus on the task at hand
It's never dull when the Pakistanis are in town. While the team was tearing itself apart during a dreadful tour of Australia six months ago, there was a legitimate fear that this coming series would be a massive mismatch - especially when the PCB, in its infinite wisdom, chose to slap life bans on Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan, the two batsmen most likely to bat England out of contention in any given contest.
And yet, is there any team in the world with a greater gift for regeneration than Pakistan? The volatility of their performance against Australia at Lord's - which culminated in the dramatic resignation of the brand-new captain, Shahid Afridi - gave way to a performance at Headingley that was forged from pure inspiration. With Mohammad Aamer swinging the ball like a latterday Wasim Akram, the two Ys were scarcely missed until the tense final stages of that fourth-innings run-chase. Who needs runs on the board when you can roll a side over for 88?
Such is the nature of England's latest opponents. Bursts of brilliance are to be expected throughout the coming four Tests, interwoven with periods - protracted or otherwise - in which Pakistan's focus drifts off into the ether. It is a mercurial tendency that promises to deliver a flawed but fascinating series, and anyone who dares to treat these matches as nothing more than an Ashes appetiser might well find themselves too full to move by the end of it.
"You know that Pakistan are unlikely to be on their game for the full five days of a Test match, and if you can make sure you can play consistent cricket, I think that gives you an advantage," said England's captain Andrew Strauss. "They have a good varied bowling attack, but I don't think it's our job to overly hype the opposition. Most Test teams you play against have got a good bowling attack, and Pakistan is one of the better ones we'll see."
Nevertheless, England know they will have to be on their guard at a ground where swing bowlers have habitually ruled the roost, and against a team that may now be classified as the away side, but is likely to feel very much at home after two hard-fought Tests against Australia at Lord's and Headingley.
"I think it was very good to start the tour having played such a good side in the conditions," said Pakistan's captain, Salman Butt. "The local community and the local people from this country have all supported us and we are very thankful for this 'homely' atmosphere, though this is not home. Our side is very young, with limited experience, so it is good for us. We needed all the practice we could get, and this is the best possible practice we could have had."
While Strauss acknowledged that England were unlikely to catch their opponents cold after such a build-up to the series, he still felt that the schedule would ultimately tell against Pakistan. "They are more used to the conditions than they would be if it was the first Test match in the series," he said, "but at the same time it's a hard schedule with six Test matches in such a short time. The most important thing for us is that these are our own conditions, we're very comfortable here, and we know what type of cricket we need to play. We need to use that to our advantage over the course of this summer."
England's attack will have to perform at peak levels if they are to outshine a Pakistan attack that put Australia's frontline seamers to shame in both the Lord's and Headingley Tests. Aamer's zippy left-arm line is perfectly complemented by Mohammad Asif's stingy seam and the reverse-swing of Umar Gul, and as Butt admitted: "I am a lucky person to have all these three up my sleeve.
"They've been producing results, taking wickets and troubling the batsmen, so I think these things are very eye-catching for all the teams and spectators," he added. "They bring a lot of confidence to me as a captain and us as a team because whatever totals you manage, you are always confident you have a good bowling attack and you can defend it."
England's own pacemen have plenty of strengths to call upon, although they aren't exactly a like-for-like line-up. Stuart Broad is on his home turf, and is walking on air after a career-best 8 for 52 against Warwickshire earlier in the week, although seam not swing is his particular strength. The same goes for Steven Finn, whose 6'8" frame will test the mettle of a Pakistan middle-order that occasionally looked vulnerable when the considerably less lanky Doug Bollinger started ramping up the aggro.
But given Trent Bridge's reputation for lateral movement, the focus will undoubtedly fall on James Anderson, a player whose credentials as the leader of the attack have suffered in recent months with his omission from the victorious World Twenty20 campaign in the Caribbean, as well as an off-the-boil showing in the recent spate of one-day contests against Australia and Bangladesh.
"Jimmy Anderson is under some pressure, as we all are," said Strauss. "We want healthy competition in the ranks, and it would be wrong ever to assume that your place in the side is cast in stone. I think we have got a fair amount of competition, both in the batting line-up now, and there are some bowlers chomping at the bit to get in as well. Jimmy, we know what he can do, and in the right conditions there's no better bowler in world cricket, I don't think. Like everything, we want our bowlers to be as consistent as possible in all conditions, so that's the challenge for him."
The challenge for England is to treat the coming contests as an end in themselves, regardless of any temptation to look straight through the here-and-now and rest their gaze on the Ashes. With that in mind, Strauss is already attempting to be ambivalent about the state of Australia's current preparations, particularly in light of that first-innings humiliation at Headingley.
"My first thought was that it just proved I should have bowled first at Headingley last year," he said, recalling how England themselves had been blown away for 102 by the Aussies, en route to a two-and-a-half-day defeat. "We had an interest in that series but it wasn't a close interest, because it's not that relevant right at the moment for us.
"It was relevant to have a look at the Pakistani bowlers and how they were looking to bowl at right- and left-handers for instance, but as far as Australia is concerned, I still think that's something that's a little bit down the road. We don't need to be side-tracked by that at this moment."
He is quite right of course. Come Thursday morning, and given the sort of cloudy conditions that hung over Trent Bridge on the eve of the contest, England might well have plenty to preoccupy them as it is.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.