Big Picture

Well, that escalated quickly. It's only been a matter of days since the soggy denouement to England's third and final ODI against Sri Lanka - a match that had begun amid rumours of a few fresh faces in the ranks, but had continued with a solitary change to the line-up and another win-toss-and-bowl display, as Eoin Morgan targeted a full hand of World Cup Super League points before the heavens opened to rain on his run-chase.
Changes are afoot now, all right. Eighteen of them to be precise, following the scrambling scenes on Tuesday morning, as seven positive Covid cases in the England camp led to the self-isolation of the other close contacts therein. You thought it was extraordinary when Gareth Southgate reeled off three substitutions with England 4-0 up against Ukraine on Saturday? Chris Silverwood just phoned and wants you to hold his beer…
And so, all bets are off for the coming contest - which was always expected to be a stiffer challenge than Sri Lanka were ever able to pose, though these new circumstances are rather taking the Mickey (as Mickey Arthur himself has acknowledged). Pakistan are currently third on the Super League table, having played half as many games as England, and though they didn't play ODIs on last year's bio-secure tour, they emerged with a share of the T20I series with a thrilling defence of 191 in the decider at Old Trafford. The lack of jeopardy was palpable throughout the Sri Lanka leg, particularly for England's fans, returning to the stands, but sometimes you really do have to be careful what you wish for.
Nevertheless, what an opportunity these coming games present for England's hastily-assembled stand-ins. There are players in this emergency party who may well find themselves playing their first and only international matches in the coming days - men such as Gloucestershire's David Payne, who admitted he couldn't stop smiling after getting the call from Silverwood while on red-ball duty in Cheltenham, and Middlesex's John Simpson, one of the most accomplished wicketkeepers in the country, and now the only specialist on parade.
But there are players too for whom this is a massive opportunity to restate credentials that, for one reason or another, have been marginalised in the intervening seasons (step forward James Vince and Ben Duckett) or simply to fast-track their own standings as ones to watch for the future - Surrey's Will Jacks being a particularly prime example. Others, such as Somerset's Lewis Gregory, have found it hard to gain traction in their limited opportunities to date. His eight T20Is have so far offered little opportunity to show off his range as a No.7, fifth-change bowler. A 50-over outing gives far more scope for meaningful contributions across the board.
And then there's the skipper. Ben Stokes was meant to be easing back to match fitness at Durham after breaking his finger at the IPL and saving his energies for an intense second half of the year - starting with the five Tests against India (not to mention his vital status as a drawcard for the Hundred), then morphing into the World T20 and the Ashes over Christmas and New Year. Now he's answered the call as if it's the final day at Headingley or Cape Town all over again - "help us Ben Kenobi, you're our only hope".
A penny for Pakistan's thoughts amid all this chaos. They've been holed up in their Derby Travelodge, a familiar base-camp following last year's Test preparations, no doubt plotting their strategies for tackling the new-ball threat of Sam Curran, Chris Woakes and David Willey, and undermining the Bairstow-Roy-Root axis at the top of England's World Cup-winning batting order. Instead they'll now be cobbling together some hasty plans for the likes of Phil Salt and Brydon Carse. The county streams may help them in that regard, but despite England's undignified departure, it's unlikely that their outgoing management forgot to leave their own scouting reports pinned to the dressing-room fridge.

Form Guide

England WWLWL
Pakistan WLWTW

In the spotlight

One player that Pakistan won't need to make many plans for is Saqib Mahmood. They saw signs of his potential in the T20I series last summer, but moreover, they watched him grow into his role as one of only two overseas seamers at the first leg of this year's postponed PSL - the other was no less an icon than Dale Steyn. With 12 wickets in 18.1 overs across five appearances, he was the tournament's leading wicket-taker at the time of the bubble breach in March, having thrived on the strike-bowling responsibility handed to him by his Peshawar Zalmi captain, Wahab Riaz. He translated that attacking threat into red-ball cricket this summer too, with a thrilling five-for to seal the Roses match for Lancashire in May, and of all the reserves drafted into England's emergency squad, he's among the closest to making a proper push for first-team honours.
Shadab Khan is Pakistan's designated vice-captain, and he'll hope that that responsibility rubs off on his performance after a fallow few months for his country. He's not taken a wicket in six matches since August, the second match of last summer's England tour, while his batting remains promising rather than fulfilling - he made the last of his three ODI half-centuries way back in January 2018. With Usman Qadir offering an alternative legspinning option, and Mohammad Nawaz waiting in the wings as an allrounder, he'll need to step up sooner rather than later.

Pitch and conditions

Cardiff served up a dog of a pitch for the T20I against Sri Lanka last month - tacky, two-paced, with occasionally savage lift, and resulting in a match strike-rate of barely a run a ball as England laboured to hunt down a paltry target of 112. With abject weather to boot, it was not exactly the spectacle the BBC might have ordered for their first live match of the English summer. But at least the sun is expected to shine on Sophia Gardens on Thursday. The rest is in the lap of the groundstaff.

Team news

Ha! Your guess is as good as ours. With nine new caps in England's makeshift ranks, there will be an element of lucky dip to the final XI that takes the field - Stokes admitted on the eve of the game that the squad hasn't yet managed to meet in person. However, a handful of building blocks are sure to be in place, namely the top-order trio of James Vince, Dawid Malan and Stokes himself - when you're rummaging through the back of that dressing-room fridge, seeking some left-overs to make a team, two World Cup winners and a No.1 T20I batter aren't such bad ingredients to fall back on. Mahmood, likewise, seems assured of a role, and so too Matt Parkinson - England couldn't be so cruel as to overlook him again, surely? That leaves Phil Salt and Ben Duckett to squabble over the second opener's role - Salt may win that, seeing as Duckett is probably the likely keeper, despite Simpson's claims - then we need to consider the balance of batting depth and bowling penetration required at Nos. 6-9. Jacks, bruising batter and handy offspinner, looks well equipped in that regard, and so too does Gregory at No.7. Craig Overton and Brydon Carse can also wield a bat to good effect while serving up some muscular seam - Stokes likened Carse's potential role to that of Liam Plunkett - although with left-armers very much in vogue, there may be a temptation to take a closer look at Payne. He may be a long way behind the likes of Curran, Willey, George Garton, Reece Topley and Tymal Mills in the T20 World Cup stakes, but as England have suddenly discovered, you can never have too many options …
England (possible): 1 Phil Salt, 2 James Vince, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Ben Stokes (capt), 5 Ben Duckett (wk), 6 Will Jacks, 7 Lewis Gregory, 8 Craig Overton / David Payne, 9 Brydon Carse, 10 Saqib Mahmood, 11 Matt Parkinson
Rare are the occasions when Pakistan are outdone in the team selection drama stakes, but such is the poise of their current line-up that few surprises are in store. Saud Shakeel is set to make his ODI debut, after missing the chance earlier this year in South Africa after suffering a quadriceps tear prior to the team's departure.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Fakhar Zaman, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 5 Saud Shakeel, 6 Shadab Khan, 7 Faheem Ashraf, 8 Hasan Ali, 9 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 10 Haris Rauf, 11 Mohammad Hasnain.

Stats and trivia

  • If Babar Azam continues the form he showed in South Africa earlier this year, where he made 228 runs at 76.00 in three matches, he could become the fastest batter to reach 4000 ODI runs. Hashim Amla holds the record, reaching the mark in his 81st innings in 2013. Babar currently has 3808 runs from 78.
  • Should Danny Briggs feature in any of these three matches, he will be playing his first ODI since his one-off appearance against Pakistan in the UAE in February 2012, almost a decade ago. His last England appearance in any format came at Hobart in January 2014, the last of his seven T20Is.
  • Ben Stokes will be playing his first home England match for 11 months - he last featured against Pakistan in the first Test at Old Trafford in August 2020, prior to a spell of compassionate leave. He has played 15 overseas matches since then, three in South Africa and the rest in India.
  • Quotes

    "I've captained because Joe [Root] was having a baby, and I've captained because of a Covid outbreak. They are obviously strange situations to be involved in, but it's a huge honour to lead your country out onto a sporting field and I'm looking forward to it."
    Ben Stokes is once again at the helm for England in unusual circumstances.

    Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket