Test tours outside Asia have been quite rare for Pakistan lately, and four-Test series even rarer, which is why the next five weeks will be huge for their players and their fans. The last time Pakistan played a four-Test series was also in England, in 2010, on a tour that was fraught with controversy. Since then, they have largely been Asia-bound in Tests.
Since June 2011, Pakistan have played 37 Tests, of which 31 have been in Asia - 19 in the UAE, eight in Sri Lanka and four in Bangladesh. Of the remaining six Tests, three have been in Zimbabwe and three in South Africa. And while Pakistan's results in Asia have been very encouraging - 16 wins and seven defeats - they lost all three on the tour to South Africa in 2013.
Pakistan's lopsided Test schedule is a damning reflection of uneven distribution of matches over the last few years. Since June 2011, they have played three Tests outside Asia (excluding games in Zimbabwe), compared to 24 by India and 17 by Sri Lanka in the same period. (Even after this four-Test series in England, Pakistan's tally will only go up to seven, less than a third of India's number.) This lack of exposure to overseas conditions has denied their current players the opportunities to develop in different conditions, and has therefore hurt the team as well. Azhar Ali, for instance, has been playing Test cricket for six years now, but hasn't yet played a Test in Australia, and only three in South Africa.
When the Tests do get underway, Pakistan will hope that their batsmen do a bit better than they have on their last few overseas series. Admittedly, it is difficult for batsmen to adjust to conditions they aren't accustomed to - especially when the tours are so infrequent - but Pakistan's batsmen will at least have the benefit of playing in the second half of the English season, when less rain is expected and conditions are likely to be better for batting.
Among the countries with conditions that are most unlike those in Asia, Pakistan have struggled the most in Australia, England and South Africa over the last 15 years. In New Zealand they have done relatively well, winning two of their last three series, and drawing the other. However, in Australia, England and South Africa, Pakistan have struggled in the last decade and a half, winning only four Tests and losing 21. They have only drawn one Test out of 26 in these countries. In nine series, they have lost seven, and drawn two - against England in 2001 (1-1), and against Australia in England in 2010 (1-1). They have lost three times to Australia, and twice each to England and South Africa.
In most of those series, the batting has been Pakistan's biggest problem: only twice in those nine series has their batting average gone beyond 26, while they have averaged below 25 six times. The bowling has disappointed too at times, but for Pakistan that has always been their stronger suit.
Since 2000, Pakistan have played 86 Tests in Asia and lost only 22, but in Australia, England and South Africa they have lost 21 out of 26. The batting average drops by 38%, from 38.95 to 24.14, while the bowling average is only slightly poorer. The batsmen have also scored 1.5 hundreds per Test in Asia during this period, compared to less than one every two Tests in these three countries.
The deterioration in batting quality will worry Pakistan's think-tank. In the 1980s and 1990s, armed with batsmen like Javed Miandad, Zaheer Abbas, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf, Pakistan did better in overseas conditions. They obviously didn't play in South Africa in the 1980s, but when West Indies are included instead, Pakistan's batting average remains exactly the same - 32.08.
Among the batsmen in their current squad, Younis Khan and Azhar are the only batsmen to have played more than one Test innings in England. Younis has been superb, averaging 52.22 from nine innings, with four 50-plus scores, but Azhar averages 26.45, with two half-centuries from 12 innings. Misbah-ul-Haq hasn't yet played a Test match in England.
Adding all Tests played in Australia and South Africa to the mix, Younis' average drops to 40.60, but it is still the best among the batsmen in Pakistan's current squad. Asad Shafiq averaged 33.16 in the one series he played in South Africa, but Azhar and Misbah average under 25 in these countries. Against the likes of Stuart Broad and Steven Finn, they have will to do much better than that if Pakistan are to stand a chance over the next five weeks. If they do put the runs on the board, then given that the bowling attack includes Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah, Pakistan could well give England a far tougher test than Sri Lanka did in the first half of the summer.