England need to defy history
Rarely can two teams so closely positioned in the ICC rankings have entered a series with one side so overwhelmingly fancied to win. Pakistan, fifth in the ICC ODI rankings, are expected to thrash England, sixth in the ODI rankings, in the four-match series that begins in Abu Dhabi on Monday. Some are already predicting a whitewash.
It is not hard to understand why. While Pakistan have won their last six ODI series, their last seven ODIs and 13 of their last 14, England have lost their last five. Indeed, England have won only five of their last 20 ODIs played outside the UK and, since December 12, 2005, England have won just 12 of 38 ODIs in Asia. Four of those victories came against Bangladesh and the Netherlands. Indeed, since 1987 - yes, 1987 - and excluding games against Bangladesh, England have won just one two-nation limited-overs series in Asia. Several of England's squad - Steven Finn among them - were not even born at the time.
Furthermore, Pakistan whitewashed England 3-0 in the recently concluded Test series. England's batting was woefully fragile against spin and it is anticipated that Pakistan will play a maximum of two seamers. It is possible they may even play five spinners. From an England perspective, such statistics do not justify much optimism.
Scratch beneath the surface of those statistics, however, and the picture is not so clear. Not quite so clear, anyway. England have actually won nine of their last 12 ODI series, including the last one against Pakistan. In the 2011 English season, they defeated both World Cup finalists - India and Sri Lanka - and, until the 5-0 thrashing they took in India, they seemed to be on a gentle upward curve.
Perhaps they may not prove quite the pushover some are predicting.
In many ways, Alastair Cook offers a microcosm of England's reputation. Cook, England's 50-over captain since their almost ritual humiliation at the 2011 World Cup, has received a great deal of criticism in recent times. A plethora of former players - the likes of Ian Botham, Mike Atherton and Dermot Reeve - have questioned not just his captaincy ability, but his right to a place in the side as a batsman. For evidence they cite Cook's ODI career-strike rate of 78.98, which is low for an opening batsman in this era, and his sometimes ponderous Test batting.
Again, the more recent statistics tell a slightly different story. In the home series against India and Sri Lanka, Cook scored 467 runs at a strike-rate of 95.89 and an average of 58.37. By any standards, those are impressive statistics. Even in India, where he averaged just 26.60, his strike-rate was 84.71. It means that, since he was appointed captain, his batting average is 46.15 and his strike-rate is 93.16.
Cook, like England, have had one bad series. The encounter with Pakistan may allow clearer conclusions to be drawn.
One man who will not be helping England, in the first match at least, is Jos Buttler, the 21-year-old Somerset batsman. He had been pencilled in for a place in England's middle order but will not be available for selection as his hand injury has not healed sufficiently. The injury will be monitored over the next day or two before a decision is made whether Buttler should be sent home.
Pakistan's team is unlikely to differ too much from that which defeated Afghanistan on Friday night. It is possible Wahab Riaz could be dropped for another spinner, probably Abdur Rehman, or that Shoaib Malik will make way. Either way, it is likely that spin will be introduced very early - possibly from the start. Mohammad Hafeez, Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal will form a formidable trio at the very least.
One of Pakistan's strengths is the presence of three decent allrounders in their side. Afridi's batting may not be the force it once was, but he is still a dangerous player capable of turning a game with bat or ball within a few overs. Hafeez, too, provides bowling depth, while Umar Akmal, by no means the finished article as a wicketkeeper, is a very fine batsman to find himself as low as No. 7 in the order.
Perhaps there is just one, small concern for Pakistan. While their current squad looks ideally suited to conditions in the UAE, it may prove less well balanced in Australasia, where the 2015 World Cup will be contested. Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan's captain, said it was "too early to think about the 2015 World Cup" and that it was better for the team "to concentrate day by day. We have to bring in some youngsters for long-term planning, but we are doing it day by day."
Misbah said the use of two new balls - one from each end - should minimise the affect of dew, but did warn against over confidence from his players. "Sometimes confidence is harmful for the team," he said. "We have to guard that." Over confidence, at least, should not be a problem for England.
England's policy is somewhat puzzling. They talk of fresh faces and building for the 2015 but their side in this game will be strikingly similar to the ones that have played over the last year or so. It is just in a slightly different order. Indeed, had Eoin Morgan and Stuart Broad not missed the series in India due to injury, England's side would be identical.
If England do lose, they may also have cause to reflect on their preparation for this series. The standard of net bowling has been well below the required standard while, for reasons that remain unclear, their warm-up game against England Lions was a day time encounter despite the fact that the series will be contested under lights. As a consequence, England are unsure how dew could affect conditions.
While Cook said that England had "tried" to stage the warm-up game under lights, he complained that England "don't have control over the wicket and groundsman and stuff." The ground authorities and PCB insisted both sides had "agreed on the schedule mutually… well in advance." A spokesman commented: "If there had been a wish from ECB for a day-night fixture it would have been addressed."
Cook, at least, took encouragement from necessity. "The one-day game dictates you have to be more positive," Cook said. "We're not going to have men around the bat all the time so it changes your mentality as a batter. It frees you up and we've got a good record against Pakistan."
To listen to some pundits, you would think that England's best hope in this series is to avoid humiliation. Cricket would not be nearly such an absorbing game, however, if it was predictable.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo