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Amir return sharpens the edge for titanic tussle

Match facts

July 14-18, 2016
Start time 11am local (1000 GMT)

Big Picture

How big do you like your pictures? It took Michelangelo four years, from 1508 to 1512, to paint one of the biggest of the lot, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel - with its depictions of the rise and fall of man, and all that malarky. Well, it's been six years and counting since Mohammad Amir succumbed to temptation at Lord's in 2010, and tomorrow, he launches his bid for redemption at the scene of his original sin, with the full backing of a Pakistan team that has rarely seemed more focussed or united than they do at this potentially epochal moment of their history. This is a big picture, all right. One of the biggest that Test cricket could ever have conceived.

All eyes will be on Amir, and rightly so, as he marches back out through the Long Room and down the pavilion steps to relaunch his Test career after the highest-profile hiatus imaginable - and memories of that abject August Sunday are sure to be recalled in gory detail as the contest begins to take shape. Nevertheless, the focus of both teams will be very much on the here-and-now - out of respect for the challenge in store, and doubtless for the sanity of the competitors as well.

Pakistan have spoken at length about how they intend to close ranks around Amir and block out the "noise" that will surround his return to the fray, but England also have plenty of reasons to treat this occasion as ordinarily as possible. From Jake Ball, inked in for his Test debut at the age of 25, to Gary Ballance - back in the team after a year of exile and introspection - there will be enough emotion doing the rounds without getting caught up in the whys and where-fors in the opposition ranks.

Besides, after a low-key start to England's international summer, in which a rebuilding Sri Lanka team was put firmly in its place across all three formats, there is a distinct sense of occasion surrounding the arrival of Pakistan. They may not have won a Test series in England since 1996, but they have more regenerative properties than the T-3000, and under the leadership of Misbah-ul-Haq, they have gelled into one of the most consistent opponents in the world game.

This is, as Misbah acknowledged last week, the ultimate challenge for a team that he has coaxed back to prominence over the past six years. All roads since the ignominy of the 2010 tour have led straight back to where it all began, and the diligence of their preparations - from their training camp in Lahore, to their acclimatisation at the Ageas Bowl, to the discipline of their practice sessions under the focussed eye of the new coach, Mickey Arthur - underlines the sense that they want this shot at redemption more than they have wanted any other challenge in recent times.

We are about to find out whether Misbah's men are ready and able to emulate the great Pakistan teams of the 1980s and 1990s. But, as with their forebears, there's nothing like an underlying sense of grievance to galvanise one of world sport's most naturally talented outfits. Whatever the size of the picture, it promises to be a spectacle.

Form guide

England: DWWLW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
Pakistan: WWDWL

In the spotlight

Err ... have a guess. Still, if we take it as read that Amir will hog every inch of the limelight in this contest, then the way is clear for his less conspicuous team-mates to thrive in his slip-stream. Not least his fellow left-armer, Wahab Riaz, who proved to be the single most significant difference between the teams in the recent series in the UAE. His searing pace on unforgiving surfaces returned little in the way of eye-catching figures - his best return of 4 for 66 came in the second Test at Dubai, but that included the prime scalps of Joe Root, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler in a ferocious nine-over spell. No-one in England's ranks can rival his out-and-out pace.

Joe Root's promotion to No.3 is the most eye-catching statement of intent from an England line-up that has had more than its fair share of top-order wobbles in recent times, but the recall of Gary Ballance at No.5 is the surprise move from the selectors. His technique has been put through the wringer since his glut of failings against New Zealand and Australia last year, but showing a commendable streak of stubbornness of which his captain, Alastair Cook, would no doubt approve, Ballance has resolved not to deconstruct his methods, but simply to apply them better. He returns to the fray with a proven track record, including four Test hundreds and an average of 47.76. He's done it before, and can do it again.

Team news

The Nottinghamshire debutant, Jake Ball, has been confirmed as James Anderson's replacement, after Alastair Cook revealed his hand on the eve of the contest - he edges out the Lord's local, Toby Roland-Jones, for the final spot in the XI. Anderson himself is said by Cook (somewhat euphemistically, you suspect) to be "disappointed" not to be playing. Joe Root steps up to the hot seat at No.3, following Nick Compton's failure to cement his place against Sri Lanka, while Ballance is back at No. 5, a full year after his last Test appearance on this same ground against Australia. Chris Woakes (illness) and Steven Finn (knee) have come through their respective niggles and will be fit for Thursday morning.

England 1 Alastair Cook (capt), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Joe Root, 4 James Vince, 5 Gary Ballance, 6 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Jake Ball, 11 Steven Finn.

Pakistan can put forward an imposing and settled line-up, one that will be very familiar to England following their 2-0 loss in the UAE last winter, and one that has been significantly bolstered by the return of You Know Who. With Wahab and Yasir Shah ready to resume their leading roles, Rahat Ali and Imran Khan seem to be in a shoot-out for their fourth bowling slot. Imran might just have the edge, seeing as three left-armers might be overdoing it.

Pakistan (probable) 1 Mohammad Hafeez, 2 Shan Masood, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Asad Shafiq, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 8 Wahab Riaz, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Rahat Ali / Imran Khan, 11 Yasir Shah.

Pitch and conditions

Stuart Broad has already expressed his fears about the state of the Lord's wicket - a surface on which no side has yet managed to claim 20 wickets this season. Middlesex's most recent fixture at Lord's, against Lancashire two weeks ago, resulted in a mercy killing on the final day; rain washed out the contest with the scores entrenched on a towering 513 v 419 for 5. There is, at present, a green tinge to the surface, and the weather promises to be dry but overcast, which may offer some assistance to the quicks on either side. But Pakistan, with all their experience in the UAE and their traditional pace-and-legspin combination, may fancy their chances if the carry is as slow and low as anticipated.

Stats and trivia

  • Pakistan have won three and lost five of their previous 14 Tests at Lord's - including two crushing defeats on their last tour in 2010. One, of course, came in the aftermath of the spot-fixing saga, but the other - less-well-remembered - contest came earlier that summer, against Australia in the first neutral Test at the venue since 1912.

  • Auspiciously for Pakistan, however, both of their last two wins at the venue came in their most recent series victories in England - in the heyday of Wasim and Waqar in 1992 and 1996. The 1992 victory, by two wickets, was one of the most thrilling in Lord's illustrious history.

  • At the age of 42 years and 47 days, Misbah-ul-Haq will be playing his first Test in England. With 20 wins in 42 Tests as captain, he is already Pakistan's most successful captain, ahead of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad (both 14).

  • Stuart Broad, in his 95th Test, needs five more wickets to become the 22nd bowler to take 350 Test wickets.

Quotes

"Unfortunately Jimmy's missed out, it gives a great opportunity for Jake, one he's really looking forward to. He's had a great year with Notts and looks a fine bowler."
Alastair Cook confirms that Ball is set to make his Test debut in place of England's leading wicket-taker.

"It's an advantage if one of the main bowlers is missing. We feel ready. Preparation has been good. Everyone is ready to go."
Misbah-ul-Haq believes James Anderson's absence will play to Pakistan's advantage.