Time to step outside the comfort zone
Multan. A city of dust, heat, beggars and burial grounds, according to an old Persian proverb that is swiftly becoming a well-grooved cliché. And it is true, Multan is hot - though not oppressively so as the Asian winter draws in - while the dust is omnipresent, not least during England's final practice session, as an army of jharoowallahs work the stands with their brooms in preparation for the fans who may or may not turn up to claim their share of a 70% free ticket policy.
As for the begging and burials that may occur here, the next five days will reveal all. An England team high on confidence after the Ashes but shorn of their captain and short of batting form, take on a young and eager Pakistan side with renaissance at their fingertips. It is the most timely challenge that either side could wish for at this stage of their respective developments.
England, for their part, have arrived in this country with a self-confident strut, visibly emboldened by their summer's exploits against Australia. Not even two indifferent warm-up matches have been enough to disturb their equilibrium, while the loss of their captain for one Test, and possibly more, seems but a fly in the ointment. Rarely can such a calamitous start to a tour have been given such benefit of the doubt. From tomorrow, however, there can be no more mitigating circumstances.
England have said all along that the atmosphere of a proper Test match would be all that was needed to get their juices flowing, and Marcus Trescothick, the acting captain, encountered his first true whiff of cricket, subcontinent-style, at this afternoon's press call. As he was herded into a cramped attic-room at the top tier of the media enclosure, he was welcomed by a blaze of cameras, cables and questions that left him in no doubt as to the universal significance of tomorrow's tussle.
Trescothick, however, remained unfazed by the challenge and the responsibility, and was adamant that England's approach would be far removed from the cling-on-at-all-costs approach that served Nasser Hussain's squad so proudly five years ago. "We are a totally different team," he insisted, "We're a more youthful team, with a little bit more positiveness about us. We've gained confidence from winning big series over long periods of time, and we will go out to express ourselves."
That urge for self-expression has arguably been at the root of England's problems so far on this tour, as a host of top-order batsmen have self-destructed in their haste to play their big shots. But one look at the wicket would imply that England's reasoning in the warm-ups has been correct. The seaming greentops of Rawalpindi and Bagh-e-Jinnah have been replaced by a familiarly dry and grassless strip, on which India's Virender Sehwag launched last year's epic series with a national-record 309.
Officially, England will not be unveiling their team until the morning of the match, but in his best media-speak, Trescothick conceded that there was a "pretty good chance" of England playing two spinners to match the conditions. That roughly translates as a first Test cap for Hampshire's veteran, Shaun Udal, who toured with the Ashes squad more than ten years ago, before sinking back into the morass of journeymen tweakers who have been tried and tested over the past decade.
Udal might have envisaged a rather earlier baptism than this, but it promises to be no less fiery than the one he had braced himself for in Australia all those years ago. Given the respect and recognition that Ashley Giles has earned for his efforts here in 2000-01, Udal can expect to be targeted from the word go, and in Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and the captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, he will be up against a middle-order who eat slow bowling for iftar.
England's own middle-order, by contrast, has an alarmingly threadbare look to it now that their captain has been ruled out. It is easy to forget that Kevin Pietersen, so imposing at The Oval, has just five Tests to his name and if, as expected, he is to be flanked at Nos. 3 and 5 by Ian Bell (eight Tests) and Paul Collingwood (three), that would leave the entire middle order with the same number of caps combined as Asim Kamal and Hasan Raza, the two relative rookies fighting it out for Pakistan's No. 6 berth.
For all his superlative talent, Pietersen's lack of runs on this tour is a worry, for the simple reason that he has never yet failed and is undoubtedly due to do so. His early-tour assertion that he wished to develop his bowling was shot down in flames by his coach, Duncan Fletcher, who reminded Pietersen of the pitfalls that await the over-confident, not to mention his additional responsibilities now that he has moved up to No. 4 in the order.
Bell, by contrast, lacks nothing in humility, although in his case that is hardly an asset. His Ashes tribulations have been well-documented, and his body language on the early days of the tour has been woebegone in the extreme. But he now has an unanticipated opportunity to restate his credentials, and a chance for an anonymous return to form that, to judge by the faith that England kept all summer, should have been his from the start.
With Collingwood providing a 21st Century, professional-era, return to the bits-and-pieces allrounders of yesteryear, it is clear where the bulk of England's runs must come from. Trescothick and Andrew Strauss have enjoyed a prolific alliance since Vaughan's last knee injury threw them together in unexpected circumstances 18 months ago, and they represent the one area in which England have an indisputable weight advantage. In the absence of any experienced openers, Bob Woolmer, Pakistan's coach, is expected to opt for the youth of Shoaib Malik and Salman Butt.
Andrew Flintoff lurks down the order, ready to cash in as the shine comes off the new ball, but before that can happen, Trescothick and Strauss must first withstand the cut-and-thrust of Pakistan's new-ball attack - an attack that is not only fully fit for the first time in six Tests, but needs to fire as the pressure for places hots up from below.
"It's going to be a tough challenge for us," said Trescothick, and although it sounded almost as much of a cliché as Multan's dust and beggars, these were no mere platitudes. England are in for a battle royal against a side still smarting from that twilight robbery five years ago, and as Trescothick admitted, the burden of the captaincy may force him to reappraise his own approach to the game.
"There are different areas I'm going to have to make sure I'm stronger on," he said, "and certain things will crop up that I'll have to deal with. But the boys are in good shape, and we've switched on a bit in last few days, which generally happens when you get into the warm-up days before a Test match. We've done a lot of preparation, we've talked a lot as a unit, and we need to make sure we're really comfortable come tomorrow."
The afterglow of Ashes victory has shielded England's cricketers ever since their appearance in Trafalgar Square. But come 9.30 tomorrow morning, it will be time to step, once again, outside of the comfort zone.
England (probable) 1 Marcus Trescothick (capt), 2 Andrew Strauss, 3 Ian Bell, 4 Kevin Pietersen, 5 Paul Collingwood, 6 Andrew Flintoff, 7 Geraint Jones (wk), 8 Ashley Giles, 9 Shaun Udal, 10 Matthew Hoggard, 11 Steve Harmison.
Pakistan (probable) 1 Salman Butt, 2 Shoaib Malik, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Hasan Raza, 7 Kamran Akmal (wk), 8 Mohammad Sami, 9 Naved-ul-Hasan Rana, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Danish Kaneria.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo