Strauss wary of volatile Pakistan threat
When preparing for every new Test, England's mantra is invariably one of "controlling the controllables" - and against a team as volatile as Pakistan, that's generally a wise approach. Every once in a while, however, a situation arises in the opposition camp that can't help but encroach on one's best-laid gameplans. Such is the case with Mohammad Yousuf, because until he is ruled in or out of contention for Friday's second Test, England will have little choice but to prepare as if he is playing.
Yousuf may appear to be just another batsman - albeit one who averages an even 70.00 in 12 Tests against England - but such is his reputation, he could prove to be the man who makes or breaks Pakistan's tour, in the most polarised sense imaginable. On the one hand, a veteran of 88 Tests and 7431 runs is a very tempting trump for the PCB to pull from its sleeve for the very innings after their team has been bowled out for 80. On the other, Yousuf's most recent role in international cricket was back in January, when he captained Pakistan on a tour of Australia so "dysfunctional" that the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit was unable to distinguish allegations of match-fixing from a more general morass of squabbling and back-biting.
Salman Butt, a young captain who has been impressively forthcoming with the media so far in his tenure, appeared understandably fed up of the speculation as he glowered out from behind dark glasses during his press conference. If Yousuf's recent description of him as a "lazy little runner" hinted at a certain level of antipathy, then Butt's failure to address "him" by name at any stage of his press conference rather suggested that the feeling was mutual. It's little wonder that Andrew Strauss wanted to steer as far from the subject as possible.
"It is for me to back what is with me," said Butt. "The youngsters have shown the ability and they are the people for the future and nobody is denying that. But we also welcome the experienced person coming in. If he can do us something good, that will be good for the team, and also there's a chance for a youngster to speak to him and get something based from his experience, and benefit from that. I hope that his presence has a good effect on the rest of the guys, especially the young batsmen."
Whether Yousuf's game-brain is sufficiently switched on is a moot point. He announced his international retirement back in March, and though he volunteered a willingness on renege on that decision last week, it is still a sizeable step back into the big-time for a man who will turn 36 next month. Nevertheless, on his last visit to England in 2006, Yousuf averaged a formidable 90.14, with three hundreds in five Tests including 202 at Lord's, and is therefore a player who could provide the backbone that a desperately brittle batting line-up desperately requires.
"We saw far too much of him last time because he had a great series, and his average suggests he's a top-quality Test performer," said Strauss, "But it's not a particularly big deal for us, only that we have to have plans in place for him and know how we are going to try to bowl to him. It's up to them to worry about whether he'll be in a position to play in a Test or not, but we know he's a dangerous player - he' s a very good player. But if he does play and he's a bit jetlagged, then hopefully we can get enough balls in the right area to make it difficult for him."
Yousuf's call-up echoes a scenario that also took place in the summer of 2006, when Sanath Jayasuriya was persuaded to come out of Test retirement by Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapakse, and duly arrived in the country midway through the first Test at Lord's - to the general bemusement of his team-mates, including the captain, Mahela Jayawardene. He, however, was not cast straight into the fray within 24 hours of landing. After a spirited performance in the drawn first Test, Sri Lanka stuck to their young guns for the subsequent defeat at Edgbaston, before he was finally selected for a memorable win at Trent Bridge - in which he made scores of 4 and 4, but chimed in with three important wickets.
More recently, West Indies' captain, Chris Gayle, flew in for last summer's Lord's Test with hours to spare before the start, but he at least had been playing competitive cricket for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL. Yousuf cannot claim to have had a similar experience in the past six months, with his only outings coming in the lowly Lahore Premier League. "I am sure he would've picked up a bat at some point, because even he knows he is coming to play a Test match," said Butt. "But he has to tell me what kind of physical state he is because it has been a quite a lot of travel for him."
In terms of the challenge that awaits him should he declare himself fit to play - and it would appear that the decision rests entirely on his own state of mind - Yousuf's comeback is likely to take place in conditions that are, in their own way, as inhospitable as those that Colin Cowdrey faced in 1974-75, when he was drafted in as an injury replacement on England's ill-fated Ashes tour. Anderson, Finn and Broad may not present a physical threat to match Lillee and Thomson at Perth 35 years ago, but with thick grey clouds hanging over Birmingham on the eve of the match, Yousuf will do well to match Cowdrey's scores in that contest of 22 and 41.
Strauss, however, in an admirable attempt to keep his team's collective eye on the ball, refused to get drawn into any such presumptuous notions. "That sort of chat is very dangerous, and easy to slip into because we've won one Test match," he said. "I'm a little bit concerned about us just turning up and assuming we are going to win this Test, because that's the wrong way to look at it. Even if we are 2% at the back of our minds starting to think this Test is going to be easy, we're going to get bitten pretty quickly.
"It's a case of going back to square one and being prepared to do all the hard work we did in the first Test, and if we do that, hopefully we'll get a good result," he added. Pakistan, after all, overcame the seismic shock of losing their original tour captain, Shahid Afridi, after one Test at Lord's, but bounced straight back to defeat Australia in their very next outing at Headingley. Controlling the controllables is all England can do, because the wild beast that is Pakistan cricket will never be tamed.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.