It's almost like a normal English cricket summer, isn't it? England lost the first Test yet again but came battling back in the series, something they do far more frequently than any other Test side. The batting order was rejigged regularly and debated in increasingly repetitive terms. Ben Stokes came good, and James Anderson and Stuart Broad continued to take wickets. Their detractors kept reminding everyone with indefatigable banality these were only home wickets, as most people smiled and nodded. The rain made a persistent enough nuisance of itself to send every Test to the final session on the fifth day, which, of course, lit the touchpaper for the four-day Test debate.
Coming into the Pakistan series, England have the distinct, irreplaceable advantage of having played three Tests against high-quality opposition, and no amount of intra-squad matches or net sessions can quite match that for Pakistan. The games against West Indies allowed England to tinker, particularly with the bowling attack, which unearthed an embarrassment of fast-bowling riches, with Broad, Jofra Archer and Anderson all missing a Test without the attack appearing any less menacing. In addition to those three, they have Sam Curran, Mark Wood and Chris Woakes to call upon.
Even the top order, which has never really been the same since Andrew Strauss retired eight years ago, showed flashes of encouraging promise against West Indies. Openers Dom Sibley and Rory Burns combined for 460 runs across the three Tests, each batsman averaging over 45. Lower down, Joe Root may not have got the runs he'd desired but Ben Stokes more than made up for that, scoring over 90 between dismissals and demonstrating he was an automatic pick even if a niggle keeps him from bowling, as it well might in the first Test. Jos Buttler got a half-century. Hell, even Broad did.
Pakistan, meanwhile, have hung around the UK since before that West Indies series began, keeping confined amongst themselves and, by historical standards, generating impressively little gossip fodder. The conversations in the squad have revolved entirely around tactics, team combination, player form, and, of course, whether or not Fawad Alam will finally get to play. The side last played a Test in February, with no competitive cricket on offer since the PSL was put on hold before the semi-finals. There has almost been an air of - whisper it softly should you dare - professionalism about how the build-up has gone.
England has always seemed to Pakistan a barometer of the state of its cricket; performances here, brilliant or disastrous, have been accepted as representative of the quality of the side. Pakistan tours to England have served as the most useful waypoints for a digestible history of the nation's cricket, encapsulating most of the recurring themes so distinctly redolent of Pakistan cricket. From perhaps Pakistan's greatest underdog moment in 1954 to the domination of the fast bowlers in the 80s and 90s, bitter controversy in 2006 and disgrace in 2010, Pakistan's presence in England has always seemed to put fate on notice.
They will hope the headlines they make remain strictly confined to the back pages, and with the side they have, there's no reason that won't happen. Babar Azam has only ever played one Test in England, and is a vastly improved Test cricketer from the one whose fluent half-century was ended by injury two years ago. In Shan Masood, Pakistan have found an opener whose technique and temperament both look to have finally come into their own, and he has the runs to prove it. Azhar Ali, appointed captain last year, also has at his disposal arguably the most exciting Pakistan fast-bowling trio in a decade; Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas and Naseem Shah all boast match-winning Test performances in their nascent careers.
Ali's side may lack experience and be decisive underdogs, but when has that ever stopped Pakistan in England? Joe Root's, in turn, may well be heavily fancied, but that isn't a tag they have worn as lightly as they might have wished.
(last five completed matches, most recent first)
England WWLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first) Pakistan WWDLL
In the spotlight
Joe Root is almost guaranteed to be the most classical Test batsman on either side in just about any series, but that isn't quite the case this time around. Opposition vice-captain Babar Azam has seen his red-ball career flourish just as Root's phenomenal career numbers have begun going the other way. You could almost trace the trend to the last time Pakistan toured England, when a 23-year old Babar played his only Test in England. Since that encounter, Root has averaged 38.48 between dismissals, nearly ten runs down on his overall career average. Babar's numbers, meanwhile, have soared, his average a stratospheric 68.52 over the same period, 23 runs up from his career mean. The Pakistan batsman has outscored his English counterpart in the centuries department, too, five to Root's four in fewer than half the innings. There was talk of the famous Fab Four taking on a fifth member in Babar, but the England skipper will have to better his most recent numbers to ensure he doesn't drop out of it altogether.
England have announced an unchanged 14-man squad to the one that was chosen for the deciding Test against West Indies. Root suggested in his pre-match press conference one of Mark Wood or Jofra Archer would play, while Stuart Broad's place in the playing party appears certain. The final balance of the side will be determined by Ben Stokes' ability to bowl, having been managing a quad niggle during the Windies series. If England err on the side of caution, then Zak Crawley will again be the fall guy, with the rest of the middle order moving up one slot.
England (possible) 1 Dom Sibley, 2 Rory Burns, 3 Joe Root (capt), 4 Ben Stokes, 5 Ollie Pope, 6 Jos Buttler (wk), 7 Sam Curran/Chris Woakes, 8 Dom Bess, 9 Stuart Broad, 10 Mark Wood/Jofra Archer, 11 James Anderson
Head coach Misbah-ul-Haq looks to be leaning towards playing two legspinners, which would seem to rule out Fawad Alam. It would, however, leave the lower middle order somewhat vulnerable, in spite of Shadab Khan's competence with the bat, and with a 16-man squad, there's plenty of flexibility to work around it.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Shan Masood, 2 Abid Ali, 3 Azhar Ali (capt), 4 Babar Azam, 5 Asad Shafiq, 6 Fawad Alam/Shadab Khan, 7 Mohammad Rizwan(wk), 8 Yasir Shah, 9 Shaheen Afridi, 10 Mohammad Abbas, 11 Naseem Shah
Pitch and conditions
England were forced to practise indoors on the eve of the game due to rain, and there is more expected for the first couple of days. The weather is expected to brighten up over the weekend, though.
The fast bowlers on either side in the West Indies series found plenty of swing at Old Trafford, with specialist offspinners Rakheem Cornwall and Dom Bess playing less of a role than both sides' respective selectors might have hoped.
Stats and trivia
Of the 10 Tests Pakistan have won in England since 1987, eight were played in London. Old Trafford, the venue of the first Test, played host to one Pakistan Test win in this period (in 2001), with the other success coming at Headingley in 1987.
Pakistan's other two victories in England were also in London, at The Oval in 1954 and Lord's in 1982.
James Anderson needs 11 wickets to become the first fast bowler to 600 Test dismissals.
"He's very skilful, looks like he has a lot of pace. You can speak to as many people as you want, but until you get out there and face him, you can't really know what it's going to be like" Joe Root looking ahead to facing 17-year old Naseem Shah for the first time