Pakistan v England 2015-16 October 11, 2015

England braced for heat of the moment

A fast bowler making an impression on his first-class comeback from a five-year spot-fixing ban; an allrounder who is unable to bowl due to a suspect action; a player recalled after a five-year gap in his Test career; a 41-year-old captain who may be about to play his final Test series; an offspinner who has had his action reported after taking a five-for in his second ODI.

That's just the last few weeks of Pakistan cricket. They are rarely without some drama or controversy. Yet amid everything, their Test side has become a relative beacon of calmness and solidity. They start the series against England as strong favourites.

The two teams are neck-and-neck in the Test rankings - just a point separates them in third and fourth - but Pakistan have their home-from-home advantage, the far superior spin attack and a batting line-up that knows how to gorge themselves on the surfaces in this region even though they have been weakened a little for the first Test by Azhar Ali's foot problem.

It is a mighty six months for England, still buoyed by an Ashes victory and a high-octane summer which helped move the game on from a horrid year-and-a-half. The challenge of South Africa, the No. 1 Test side, is on the horizon but it was more than just a sportsman maintaining a focus on the here-and-now when Ben Stokes said "UAE will be the most challenging one".

Stokes' assessment wasn't intended as a slight on South Africa. However, those will not be conditions in which England historically struggle. It is likely to be a style of cricket more akin to that which was witnessed during the Ashes; in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, however, an England cricket team is out of its comfort zone. The possibilities for self-improvement are vast, the obstacles similarly so.

Factor in, too, that only once in the last decade - against Bangladesh in 2009-10 - have England won the opening Test of an away series. With Pakistan's formidable record in Abu Dhabi, where they have not lost a Test, a draw would be a result to accept.

Neither have Pakistan lost a Test series in the UAE since it became their surrogate home in 2010. There have been wins against Sri Lanka, England and Australia and they drew 1-1 with South Africa.

Arguably, last year's series against New Zealand was the one that got away. They were 1-0 up after a resounding 248-run win in Abu Dhabi but New Zealand, on the back of a free-wheeling double hundred from Brendon McCullum, levelled in Sharjah. Perhaps not for the first time this year, New Zealand will provide an template to follow even if replicating McCullum's 202 off 188 balls is surely a step too far for either of England's openers.

Trevor Bayliss and Ben Stokes take a break during training © Getty Images

The New Zealand series is the only one of Pakistan's last four that they have not won, away victories in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka continuing the upward trend. The series in Sri Lanka had a remarkable conclusion, Pakistan bouncing back from a seven-wicket defeat to chase down 378 - the sixth-highest chase of all time - to win by seven wickets despite being 13 for 2.

It means a record of 10 Tests, six wins, two draws and two losses since last October - the joint-most victories in the period, alongside Australia, and fewer defeats than anyone bar Bangladesh and South Africa. That 12-month timeframe also coincides with the disappearance of Saeed Ajmal from the side, something which could have so easily debilitated the team.

Yasir Shah's emergence as a world-class legspinner has been a key reason why that hasn't happened, but Misbah-ul-Haq has also been an impressive leader. He has scored three hundreds - all in Abu Dhabi where he averages a stratospheric 120 - but just as importantly he has cajoled the best out of his team more often than not.

Against Australia last year, the platform was set in two prolific Tests in which the top order made nine hundreds between them, and that is before you factor in the wicketkeeper, Sarfraz Ahmed, who is averaging 50 at No. 7. Alongside Yasir v England's spinners, Sarfraz v Jos Buttler is one head-to-head which starts significantly in Pakistan's favour based on recent form.

In many ways, the greater unpredictability of late has not been with Pakistan, but England. Throughout 2015, they have immediately followed strong victories - in Grenada, at Lord's and in Cardiff - with insipid defeats, and though they broke that trend to regain the Ashes at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge, they then resumed their erratic record with another heavy loss at The Oval.

Still, in beating Australia, England have confounded expectations already this year and despite the Ashes success, England's finest hour under Alastair Cook remains the 2012-13 series victory in India. Cook played a monumental role, as did the now-departed Kevin Pietersen, while it was England's spin twins - Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar - who triumphed.

What Cook would give for just one of those two spinners now (it adds to the sadness of Panesar's situation as he tries, once again, to keep his career afloat) but he has to play with the hand he has been dealt. Cook's batting, as a fine player of spin, will again be crucial - England can't rely on Joe Root alone - and he will have to be at his most cunning as a captain.

Moeen Ali bats in the nets ahead of the first Test © Getty Images

It will be fascinating to see how Pakistan play Moeen Ali. Should they work him around and test his endurance, or follow Australia's lead in trying to attack him with an attitude bordering on the disrespectful (an approach which, ironically, often played into Moeen's hands)? If Pakistan are able to stop Moeen bowling long spells Cook's task could become forlorn.

However, if England are to win, against the odds, it will be a miracle if their spinners play the decisive role. In 2012, James Anderson and Stuart Broad were England's outstanding bowlers but that series took place in the UAE's winter - January - as opposed to the oppressive late summer this time. They were also three years younger.

The relative whipper-snappers, Mark Wood and Stokes, with their skiddy pace and ability to find reverse swing, will have to help make up for the lack of a proven matchwinning spinner while Steven Finn's four wickets in the second warm-up match have provided a late conundrum, or a nice headache, for Cook and Trevor Bayliss.

But the bowling won't matter much without runs on the board. Since England last visited the UAE and contrived to lose after bowling Pakistan out for 99 in Dubai, the lowest first-innings total to win a Test in the region is Pakistan's 341 against Sri Lanka in 2014, a game in which they chased down 302. In the last 12 months, in the same number of Tests, England's top seven have scored nine hundreds against Pakistan's 24.

The recall of Shoaib Malik, with a Test average of 33, suggests the future may not be quite so rosy once Misbah and Younis Khan, who is on the verge of becoming Pakistan's leading Test run-scorer, depart the scene. However, in the immediate future, it represents quite a gap for England to bridge.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo

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