Anyone in need of a pick-me-up this morning? Can I interest you in a tale of a band of plucky underdogs, thrown together in adversity at 48 hours' notice, charged with defending their nation's honour against the sixth-best ODI team in the world, and doing so with such aplomb that they now stand on the brink of a 3-0 series whitewash? Okay, so it's not quite the homecoming narrative that the British sporting public had been gearing up for this week, but I'm afraid it's the best we can offer right now.
Yes, it's the climax of the Royal London One-Day series, between England and Pakistan at Edgbaston. And no, that's not quite a match for England versus Italy in the climax of Euro 2020. But given that the BBC were waving their forthcoming coverage of the Hundred at some 30 million viewers during the half-time interval at Wembley, maybe a handful of those heartbroken fans will be minded to flick channels a few days early on Tuesday and take solace in the fortunes of England's other national team.
Nope. I'm not selling it, I can tell. There've been some stellar displays in the past two matches - in particular from Saqib Mahmood, whose athleticism, technique and ferocity has been the true difference between the teams. But England won the first match at such a canter that Cardiff's floodlights weren't even required to clear their throats, while the second was a cakewalk long before the halfway mark of Pakistan's chase.
And therein lies a strange irony about the live sports-watching experience. Whereas an agonised throng at Wembley would happily have sold their grannies for a similarly angst-free display of dominance on Sunday night, you suspect the patrons at Edgbaston wouldn't mind a little more jeopardy to spice up their occasion.
Still, it could have been worse I suppose. England's Wembley defeat could have been confirmed by something even more arbitrary than a series of misses from 12 yards … something like passes completed, or shots on target, as Jimmy Neesham wryly noted on Twitter in reference to the last major final involving an England team. Because if Sunday's loss was a bitter pill to swallow for England's fans (and rumour has it that it was…), then at least there's the two-year anniversary of a happier close shave coming up on Wednesday.
None of which has much bearing on the upcoming event, of course. Pakistan being Pakistan, they are perfectly capable of bouncing back from consecutive thumpings with a display of irresistible flair and aggression; but England's spare-parts XI has hit the ground purring in its first two well-oiled outings. They seem well placed to make it a hat-trick. And what Harry Kane and Co. would have given for one of those at Wembley…
England WWWWL (Last five completed games, most recent first)
In the spotlight
It's been a remarkable week for England's scratch side, and while some players may be left with little more than warm memories when the big guns return to reclaim their rightful berths, others - most notably Mahmood, but alsoPhil Salt at the top of the order - are keenly aware of the opportunities that are knocking right now. Salt's 60 from 54 balls at Lord's was an outstanding audition from a fearless batter playing with exactly the sort of mindset that will have earned the approval of the absent Eoin Morgan. His response to the loss of Dawid Malan and Zak Crawley for ducks was to keep peppering the boundaries, ten in all in a 97-run stand with James Vince, as he placed the team's advancement ahead of any concerns for his own wicket - and given that he made a slightly tangled 7 from 13 balls at Cardiff it was a doubly impressive approach. Jason Roy and Jonny Bairstow will return in due course, but ever since the banishment of Alex Hales, England's 50-over team has lacked a reserve opener whose methods fit the team's mood so well. A similar showing from Salt at Edgbaston could further accelerate his progress.
Fakhar Zaman has cut a slightly bewildered figure for Pakistan in the first two ODIs - sixth man out for 47 at Cardiff, and fourth man out for 10 at Lord's; returns which at least demonstrate a degree of durability given how easily Mahmood and Lewis Gregory have been cutting a swathe through the powerplay. But England have done their homework on their free-flowing opponent, in particular with a tight line into his body, thus denying him the chance to free those dangerously boundary-laden arms. His series strike-rate of 50.89 is the lowest of his career to date, and barely half his career figure of 95.00. If Pakistan are to get something from the series, they made need Fakhar to find a way out of his shackles.
Pitch and conditions
A lack of recent 50-over matches at Edgbaston mean that the conditions may be a touch unknowable, although the venue tends to offer a true batting surface with good carry. That said, in each of its last two Blast fixtures, scores of 81 (by Yorkshire) and 63 (by Birmingham Bears) were recorded, so make of that what you will, and with ceaselessly damp conditions in the Midlands this month, the pitch looked to have some moisture in it on the eve of the contest. The groundstaff were using sunlamps on the strip to help speed up the preparation. The weather for Tuesday is set to be overcast, but the rain is expected to stay away.
With the series already sealed against Sri Lanka at Bristol last week, England resisted the temptation to give their bench an airing - with Tom Banton and George Garton now doubly unlucky not have got their chance given the Covid chaos that broke out in the squad soon afterwards. And with that precedent in mind, there's little reason to think that England will change their approach now - with World Cup Super League points up for grabs, they'll be loath to tinker with an unexpectedly successful formula, unless they feel the need to manage Mahmood's workload with the T20Is coming up. An unchanged XI seems likely, although Jake Ball was given an energetic work-out in England's practice session on Monday.
England: (possible) 1 Phil Salt, 2 Dawid Malan, 3 Zak Crawley, 4 James Vince, 5 Ben Stokes (capt), 6 John Simpson (wk), 7 Lewis Gregory, 8 Craig Overton, 9 Brydon Carse, 10 Saqib Mahmood, 11 Matt Parkinson
Pakistan need to change their fortunes, but other than wishing for a return to form for Babar Azam, it's hard to see how a wholesale switch of personnel can help their cause. Fakhar and Rizwan are similarly proven performers with the bat, while Saud Shakeel's maiden fifty at Lord's was a timely confirmation of his abilities too. There's more room for an overhaul in the bowling, however. Shaheen Shah Afridi and Hasan Ali have led the line well, but their support cast has let them down, notably Haris Rauf and the allrounders Faheem Ashraf and Shadab Khan. Mohammad Hasnain may be due an outing.
Pakistan: (possible) 1 Fakhar Zaman, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3 Babar Azam (capt), 4 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 5 Saud Shakeel, 6 Sohaib Maqsood, 7 Shadab Khan, 8 Faheem Ashraf, 9 Hasan Ali, 10 Shaheen Shah Afridi, 11 Haris Rauf/Mohammad Hasnain.
Stats and trivia
Edgbaston has not hosted an ODI since the World Cup semi-final in 2019, two years and a day ago, when England beat Australia by eight wickets.
Pakistan have played 14 previous ODIs at Edgbaston, winning six and losing eight. However, only five of those have come against England, whom they last played at the venue in 2006. The rest have been at ICC events, most recently their group-stage victory over New Zealand in 2019.
Hasan Ali took his fourth ODI five-for with figures of 5 for 51 at Lord's. Each of his previous three five-wicket hauls had come in 2017, while in 13 completed matches dating back to November 2018, he had not picked up more than a single wicket in an innings.
"15 of the current squad in isolation. Buttler and Archer injured. What @benstokes38 and the team have achieved is incredible. Looking forward to watching the next game!" Eoin Morgan, England's captain-in-exile, delivers his Twitter verdict on the team's performance in the opening two games.