Pakistan v England 2011-12 January 23, 2012

Foundations remain solid for England

Just as the remarkable buildings that rise out of the desert in the UAE rely on solid foundations, so England have had cause to be thankful for the opening partnership between Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook in recent years.

Like the foundations of those buildings, the Strauss/Cook partnership might not be the most attractive feature in the edifice of Team England. But take away those foundations and the whole structure crumbles.

The pair will - all being well - open the batting together for the 100th time in Tests when Pakistan and England renew rivalries in Abu Dhabi from Wednesday. No previous England opening pair has done that. Indeed, the Marcus Tresocthick and Michael Vaughan pairing is the next most-common for England; they opened together 54 times in Tests. Only Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes - 148 Test innings as opening partners - Marvan Atapattu and Sanath Jayasuriya - 118 - and Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer - 113 - have opened together more in Test cricket than Strauss and Cook.

The Strauss/Cook partnership has served England well. Since they first came together - in Nagpur in March 2006 - they have played key roles in winning the Ashes home and away and helping England to the top of the Test rankings. They have put on 4,163 runs together as an opening pair at an average of 42.91 with 11 hundreds and 15 half-century stands.

Including the 14 times they have batted together in other positions, they have scored 4,651 Test runs together. Only five Test partnerships can better that, with Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid - 6,900 Test runs - leading the way.

Strauss and Cook couldn't claim to be England's best opening pair. Between 1924 and 1930 Herbert Sutcliffe and Jack Hobbs opened together on 38 occasions in Test cricket and amassed 3,249 runs at the remarkable average of 87.81. It is also worth noting that Strauss and Marcus Trescothick made 2,670 runs together as openers at the impressive average of 52.35. A reminder, perhaps, of what might have been had Trescothick not been affected by illness.

There have been some worrying signs of late, too. Nine of Strauss and Cook's last 11 opening stands have failed to reach 25 - seven of them have failed to pass ten - while, on the evidence of watching them in the nets on Monday, neither looked in the best of form. Strauss, in particular, looked quite wretched.

But they've experienced lean patches before. England have stuck with them and that loyalty has been rewarded. It would be foolish to write off the Strauss and Cook combination just yet.

"We've had some great moments," Cook said after England had finished training on Monday. "Probably the highlight for me would be Australia at Lord's in 2009 when, after not batting so well in Cardiff, we came back and set a really good platform. Then there was Brisbane in 2010 as well. They're the two that stand out for me.

"No matter how good a side you are, you will always lose some games of cricket against the very good sides we're playing. But you don't become bad players or a bad team overnight."
Alastair Cook

"It's always nice to have stability at the top of the order. I hope we inspire some confidence in the rest of the team when we walk out together. We hope, for the 100th time, we can do something special."

It is the captain's form that is causing most concern at present. While his position is not under any serious threat, his lack of runs at the top of the order - one century in 26 Tests and none since November 2010 - is an uncomfortable reality that England are hoping will be remedied soon.

Cook, naturally, was keen to defend Strauss. "He's got a great record proven over a number of years," Cook said. "To have the experience at the top of the order has held us in good stead. We're very similar in character and we do enjoy batting together.

"It's our job at the top of the order to lay that platform. We didn't do that in Dubai, and that's one of the reasons why we didn't get a good total. It's not the be-all and end-all but it's certainly a major responsibility and always has been. Whenever you open the batting, you have to lay as good a platform as you can. We have done it in the past but we didn't last week and it cost us."

Cook admitted that England's confidence had taken a blow as a consequence of the defeat in Dubai. "When you lose - and lose so heavily - it does dent confidence," he said. "But if you look at history, when we have produced a poor performance we've managed to bounce back well. We hope we can this time.

"We said when we turned number one and everyone said what a good team we are, that there were going to be some rocky roads ahead at times. No matter how good a side you are, you will always lose some games of cricket against the very good sides we're playing. But you don't become bad players or a bad team overnight. Whatever you read, or people say about you, we know we've got some seriously world-class players in our team. This is a real test of our character. We've shown it in the past and hope we can show it again."

Strauss and Cook can take some comfort from the reputation of the Abu Dhabi surface. Both Tests played at the ground have been high-scoring draws and have four scores over 400 have been recorded.

"It's always nice when you turn up to a ground where history suggests you can score runs," Cook said. "But that doesn't really count for anything. We've got to go out and put our poor performance behind us. We held our hands up as a batting unit. The reason we didn't get close in that last match was the top six. The beauty about another game coming so quickly is we can put that right. I know we've got the characters and the record to do that."

It may be relevant that the only opening pair to score more runs together in 2011 were Pakistan's Mohammad Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar. Taufeeq scored 236 against Sri Lanka in the last Test in Abu Dhabi.

The pitch is expected to be slow, with England likely to remain unchanged. But Pakistan are considering bringing in Junaid Khan, who claimed five for 38 against Sri Lanka here in October, in place of Aizaz Cheema, and Umar Akmal in place of Asad Shafiq.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo