Pakistan v England, 1st Test, Dubai January 16, 2012

First test for England's No. 1 status

For all England's success in recent years, they are yet to find consistent form in Asia. They meet Pakistan, who are rebuilding after the spot-fixing scandal and Misbah-ul-Haq could be the ideal man to guide them

Perhaps it is fitting that Pakistan and England should meet at a cricket ground in the middle of a building site, surrounded by rubble and desert, because both these teams are a work in progress.

England, for all their success at home and in Australia, have a modest record in Asia. Pakistan, for all their success in their last three series, know that a far stiffer test now lies ahead. We will have a clearer picture of the progress of each side in a few weeks.

England are further along the road of achievement but the next 12 months will begin to define their legacy. They face three tough tours in Asia - Sri Lanka beckons in April before England visit India at the end of the year and a strong South African side in between at home. If England win all four of those series - and the series against West Indies squeezed amid them - then there can be no caveats to their status as the No. 1 Test team.

"English sides have not done particularly well in Asia," Andrew Strauss said. "That's an immediate hurdle we need to overcome. There's a lot of scope for improvement in our side and I'll be very disappointed if anyone sits back and thinks we're the finished article. We're clearly not."

England routinely refuse to show their hand regarding the balance of their side. It would appear, however, that the selection has come down to a straight choice between a third seamer - Chris Tremlett - and a second spinner - Monty Panesar. A return for Tremlett seems the most likely conclusion.

Stuart Broad bowled in training and looked to have recovered from the blow to his foot. There was more concern over an injury sustained by Ian Bell, who was hit on the left wrist while receiving throwdowns from Graham Gooch. Bell was taken to hospital for scans but he did not appear overly concerned and X-rays subsequently cleared him fit to play.

Pakistan are seeking their fourth series win in succession and, despite the spot-fixing debacle, have quickly rebuilt a team that demands respect

Pakistan also have selection decisions to make. The most pertinent is whether to pick Aizaz Cheema or Wahab Riaz as the second fast bowler. It would be a surprise if they did not field both specialist spinners and so made room for both Cheema and Riaz.

The recall of Riaz is potentially inflammatory. He was questioned by police and named during the spot-fixing trial of his three former teammates - Salman Butt, Mohammed Asif and Mohammed Amir - in October, but no charges were ever made. He also had an altercation with England's Jonathan Trott at a practice session towards the end of the acrimonious ODI series in 2010.

But he is a fine bowler. Blessed with pace and the ability to move the ball both ways, the Riaz took five wickets in an innings on debut during the Oval Test of 2010, the final Test of an ill-fated series.

This series is not all about the result. After what has gone before there will also be focus upon the spirit in which the series is played. That does not mean there will be any less intensity than normal, only that both sides have to be aware of their responsibility to the wider game. There can be no repetition of some of the scenes that marred 2010.

"Given the history between the two nations it is important we recognise our responsibilities," Strauss said. "But any idea that it won't be a competitive series is well wide of the mark. It'll be a very competitive series between two very good sides, both of whom are hungry to improve."

It was a point on which the Pakistan captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, agreed. He knows the image of Pakistan cricket has been tarnished in recent months and is eager to see his side regain the respect and affection which it once enjoyed.

"I have told the team that you can get your image back only by playing good cricket, by winning and by your good conduct in the field," he said. "That's what we are trying to do and the way we have played for the last year-and-a-half shows we are on the right path."

Indeed it does. Pakistan are seeking their fourth series win in succession and, despite losing several of their finest players to the spot-fixing debacle, have quickly rebuilt a team that demands respect.

History may not remember Misbah as the most dynamic or visionary captain. But bearing in mind the hand fate dealt him and the context in which he took on the job, he may prove to be exactly the right man in the right position at the right time.

Pakistan cricket has had plenty of flamboyant, unpredictable individuals. It could, perhaps, do with a little more calm, a little more predictability and a little more teamwork. Pakistan may yet come to be very grateful for Misbah-ul-Haq.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments