Bell fit as England look to restore confidence
Andrew Strauss has warned his England teammates they are playing for their places in the final Test of the series against Pakistan in Dubai.
Pakistan have already taken an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three match series, with several England batsmen enduring miserable tours. Strauss (17), Eoin Morgan (10.25), Ian Bell (9) and Kevin Pietersen (4.25) are all averaging under 20 in the two Tests and have been largely at fault as England's batting has struggled in three of the four innings.
"You can't keep underperforming forever," Strauss said. "All of us have a responsibility to improve our games. I'm a strong believer that no-one is guaranteed their place in the England side. The environment only works if there is pressure on your for your place, so we all have to work very hard for the next five days."
Despite Strauss' words, it is far from certain that England will make any changes for this game. While there is a temptation to bring in Ravi Bopara for Eoin Morgan - Bopara's medium-pace bowling gives the Essex player an edge in that regard - the England management have invested a lot of time and faith in Morgan. The continuity of selection policy has served them well and they are loathe to drop a player they feel has the character to flourish at this level. Morgan did make a Test century against India only four Tests ago and the management signalled their liking for him by appointing him vice-captain of the T20 side. Similarly, England are not about to forget about the excellent months that Pietersen and Bell enjoyed before this tour.
They are no further injury concerns in the England squad. Bell had recovered sufficiently from his stomach trouble to resume training on Thursday and nobody else in the squad has contracted the illness.
Back in England, Chris Tremlett could be set for three months on the sidelines after seeing a specialist and being told he needs surgery. He tweeted: "Scans reveal a bulging disc and may require a little clean up. Hopefully back playing mid to end of April."
Strauss denied there was any tension within the England squad about players appearing in the IPL, though he did admit there was a balance to find to ensure the team enjoyed the best preparation ahead of the series against West Indies. "We've become very comfortable with the fact the ICC have given our players a window to play in the IPL and that window stipulates those games have to have enough time to prepare properly for our next Test series," Strauss said. "We all know where we stand. I certainly won't stand in the way of players who want to play. But, with my Test captain's hat on, I want to make sure they have enough time to prepare for the West Indies Tests next summer. We're all comfortable with that."
The series may have been decided, but England retain plenty of motivation going into this game. For a start, they are "desperate" in Andrew Strauss' words, to avoid the humiliation of a 3-0 whitewash. They have not suffered such an indignity since the 2006-07 Ashes and, before that, the 1992-93 series in India. Such a result here would feel like a particular humiliation for the top-ranked side.
They are also keen to denounce their poor record in Asia. Excluding Tests against Bangladesh, England have won just one of their last 19 Tests in Asia and that was back in March 2006, when they defeated India in Mumbai. If England are to travel to Sri Lanka with any realistic confidence, they need to show some signs of improvement. While they could point to the first three innings of the Abu Dhabi Test as evidence of progress, the manner in which the game finished - England spun away for just 72 - superseded the earlier positive signs.
Pakistan, by contrast, approach this game in good spirits. They are aiming to complete just the fifth series clean-sweep (three matches or more) in their history and their first against England. It would also be the first time they have done so outside Pakistan. They have one selection decision to make - Aizaz Cheema and Wahab Riaz are both vying for the second seamer's spot that was filled by Junaid Khan in Abu Dhabi - but go into this Test looking as settled and calm as any Pakistan team in many years.
Perhaps their most remarkable achievement in this series has been exorcising the ghost of spot-fixing. Almost anyway. While talk of the subject has slowly ebbed away over the last few weeks, the release of Mohammad Amir from prison on Wednesday prompted renewed interest. Misbah-ul-Haq, typically, blocked any questions on the issue with the straightest of bats, stating that: "Such incidents are always sad, but you cannot do anything about it." Strauss, in similar mood, was also reluctant to be drawn on the issue but did suggest that "the deterrent should be very strong to stop these guys doing this again."
Misbah was happier talking about the causes of Pakistan's success, crediting a strong team spirit and continuity of selection as the key factors. "If you look two years back, you can say it was an inexperienced side with a lot of young players," he said. "Now they have played almost two years, getting experience, getting mature and gelling well in the team. Everybody knows each other well, understands the game and their responsibilities and what he has to do for the team. That's the main thing for improvement in Pakistan cricket. As you play together and you keep playing against good sides you improve."
Victory in this Test would complete a remarkable rehabilitation for Misbah and his side. In 2010, when Pakistan cricket was tarnished by the corruption scandal and Misbah was omitted from a 35-man preliminary squad, few would have suggested that, less than two years later, he would be the man at the helm of a resurgent Test side. But now on the eve of the final Test of the series, few would doubt his team's ability to complete the clean sweep.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo