A day before departing for a daunting tour to the British Isles, Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed brushed aside criticism over the non-selection of Fawad Alam and emphasised that the 16-man squad selected for the tour is the "best of the best".
Pakistan have picked a fairly young Test squad, with five uncapped players: Fakhar Zaman, Faheem Ashraf, Imam ul Haq and Usman Salahuddin. While Alam's exclusion caused widespread debate in Pakistan, the team continued to train in Lahore as per normal, undergoing extensive drills in preparation for the tour.
"There is no pressure, but there is a will to form a squad with the best players," Sarfraz said. "Invariably, a few will get left out, and only 16 make the squad, but there is nothing to worry. There is no problem for those who are not selected this time around, and it's not like they will never be picked again. My hopes are very high and I am optimistic with these new boys. The best thing about them is that they are willing to perform on the big stage.
"Fawad was called among the probables with an intent to consider him for the national selection. We have seen him in the nets and then considered everything before we picked the squad. It's not like I voted him out; if it was in my hands, I would have picked all 25 players for the tour.
This is Pakistan's first visit to England for a Test series since 2016, when they drew 2-2 to become the top-ranked Test side. This will also be Sarfraz's first away Test series as captain, and the first one in years without the retired Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan.
His first series as captain was in the UAE against Sri Lanka, where they slumped to a 2-0 defeat, their only Test series loss since relocating there in 2009. Sarfraz, while wary of the challenge ahead of him, was fully confident about this new side doing well in English condition.
"Whenever there is an England tour, the conditions are always tough," said Sarfaraz. "On our previous tour in 2016, we played matches in July, but this year we are starting a bit earlier, so obviously it will be difficult to some extent. But we are working hard to give these boys as much confidence as possible and prepare ourselves. We have two practice games and we have prepared well here [in Lahore]. The way our batsman and bowlers are doing their hard work to enhance their skills, I believe this is going to get us good results."
Before the England tour, Pakistan will play a one-off which happens to be Ireland's Inaugural Test, and Sarfraz wasn't in the mood to take them lightly. "They [Ireland] are a strong team with every player being a regular in country cricket, so I am expecting a good competitive match against them. We have a target that if we bat first, we will try to put on over 300, and then our bowling has the capability to take control of the game."
Pakistan's preparation was dented after their leading spinner Yasir Shah was ruled out for 10 weeks. He picked up a stress fracture of his hip and is presently undergoing an extensive rehabilitation. In the absence of Yasir, Pakistan's selectors picked his closest replacement, legspinner Shadab Khan. However, Pakistan are likely to heavily rely on their pace battery, with Mohammad Amir and Rahat Ali leading the attack along with seamer Mohammad Abbas and Hasan Ali.
"If Yasir was fit, he would have been an automatic selection," said Sarfraz. "But we got four spinners in the camp and found Shadab is the best replacement. He has a good solid googly and a great stock delivery, so this is why we preferred him. But considering the condition there in England we are hearing the weather will be much cooler, and I am not even sure if we are going to play a spinner in the XI. We might go with our non-regular spinners Haris Sohail and Asad Shafiq as part-time spin options."