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January 6, 2012
Success in sport is often attributed to discipline, dedication and determination but, so often, it's blind luck that makes the crucial contribution.
So it could prove for Steven Finn or Chris Tremlett. Both travelled to the UAE knowing they could well spend several weeks doing little more than providing net bowling for their colleagues. Yet, after Tim Bresnan was ruled out of the warm-up match against ICC Combined Associate and Affiliate XI, one of Finn or Tremlett has an excellent opportunity to stake a persuasive claim for a Test place.
It would be premature to completely discount Bresnan as a possibility for the first Test. Andrew Strauss declared himself "hopeful" that the Yorkshireman would be "ready for the second warm-up [match]." But, with only one three-day game to come before three back-to-back Tests, it would something of a gamble to select Bresnan as one of England's three pace bowlers.
That could well leave Finn and Tremlett competing for one place. While Tremlett has a fine record since his return to the Test side, there is a sense that Finn is the rising power within English cricket. Not only did he provide a rare beacon of joy amid England's limited-overs thrashing in India but, aged just 22, he's already the quickest bowler in the squad. He's raw, certainly, but has all the attributes to carve out a fine career at the top level.
Tremlett, meanwhile, is struggling with a sore eye. While Strauss dismissed that of "no great concern", it would be typical of Tremlett's ill-fortune if such an unavoidable incident should thwart him. He's previously been sidelined by a tendon cut in a freak washing-up accident and a lung punctured by a misplaced acupuncture needle. While the cynics have long criticised Tremlett's attitude and commitment, the truth is he's simply enjoyed little luck.
There's also an interesting sub-plot to this match. Among the opposition is the Ireland and Warwickshire fast bowler Boyd Rankin. After a domestic season in which Marcus Trescothick rated him the best fast bowler he faced, Rankin has forced his way into the England Lions squad and knows that a strong performance here will take him even closer to the Test squad. It's a prospect that will be viewed with bitter-sweet phlegmatism by Irish cricket lovers. In the longer-term, George Dockrell, a 19-year-old left-arm spinner with Somerset, is another who could follow the same route.
They are not the only ones with special incentive, however. The ICC side are itching to show the strength of Associate and Affiliate cricket and feel that a good game will maintain pressure on the ICC to provide greater opportunities for the non-Test nations. Rankin, for example, has argued this current experiment could be continued. "There is room for an Associate team playing Test cricket. A Combined ICC team is more than capable of playing against the best sides in the world," he said. It's an intriguing thought.
England, meanwhile, will be happy to return to competitive cricket after an unusually long break. With just two three-day games in which to prepare for the Test series - a far cry from the preparation they enjoyed going into the Ashes - they know they need to hit the ground running. In this match, each first innings will be limited to a maximum 100 overs and there will not be an opportunity to utilise batsmen or bowlers from outside the selected XI as is sometimes the case with these warm-up matches.
Much as England and Pakistan may wish to move on from the spot-fixing debacle, its shadow will linger over this tour. The trial of the former Essex seamer, Mervyn Westfield, who is accused of offences related to spot-fixing, begins on January 12 and will, inevitably, turn the focus of the cricketing world back towards the sport's grubby underbelly. The trial of Allen Stanford, currently scheduled to begin on January 23, may also revive memories some would rather forget.
Yet there will also be much to savour during this tour. It says much for the abundance of talent in Pakistan that, barely months after losing some of their brightest talents to the spot-fixing debacle, the team are seen as providing a serious threat to England's winning streak. Pakistan have won their last three series and lost just one of their last 12 Tests. World cricket needs a strong Pakistan and their recent progress is heartening.
Perhaps their record flatters to deceive, however. Two of those series wins have come against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe - currently the weakest Test sides - while the other came against a Sri Lankan side in a transitional state. England will provide a far stiffer challenge.
It is sometimes blithely stated that all England's success has come on green pitches favouring seam bowlers. It's not so, however. While England are certainly a daunting proposition in archetypal English conditions, they've also had success on run-filled surfaces. Think of Adelaide, Sydney, Brisbane, Edgbaston and The Oval. With the likes of Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann in the team, England can 'do attrition' as well as anyone. Their opponents underestimate them at their peril.
Pakistan are progressing, but their fragile recovery could well be crushed under the heel of a very impressive England.
England XI (from) Andrew Strauss (capt), Alastair Cook, Jonathan Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell, Eoin Morgan, Matt Prior (wk), Stuart Broad, Graeme Swann, Steven Finn, James Anderson, Ravi Bopara, Steven Davies (wk), Chris Tremlett, Monty Panesar
Combined AM XI (from) William Porterfield (capt), George Dockrell, Boyd Rankin, Paul Stirling (all Ireland), Saqib Ali (UAE), Kyle Coetzer, Majid Haq (both Scotland), Hamid Hassan, Mohammed Nabi, Mohammad Shahzad+ (all Afghanistan), Christi Viljoen, Craig Williams (both Namibia)
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge