'We are excited about the prospect of playing the WTC final' - Babar Azam
Pakistan will need to win four of their remaining five Tests this cycle to stay in contention
England might be preparing a longer-term project with their Test side, but for Babar Azam and Pakistan, the goal is more immediate: qualification for the World Test Championship (WTC) final. Pakistan remain firmly in the hunt for the top-two finish, but find their margins for error dwindling rapidly - they will need to win four of their remaining five Test matches this cycle to remain in realistic contention. Their place in the final will be confirmed - if they win all five matches.
Pakistan had earmarked this cycle as a prime opportunity for a tilt at the WTC title, with a favourable run of fixtures over the two-year period. However, stutters in games they were expected to win, including a one-wicket defeat against the West Indies last year and a final-day collapse in Sri Lanka in July, left them facing an uphill battle. In addition, a 1-0 home series defeat against Australia in March narrowed the window even further, but with all five remaining Tests at home, Pakistan still feel they have a shot at a top-two finish.
It is a target the Pakistan captain was au fait with at the press conference on the eve of the first Test in Rawalpindi. "We are excited about that prospect of playing the WTC final. This is an important series for that. We have a golden chance to achieve that if we win four of the five Tests to come [three against England followed by two against New Zealand].
"We got around a week to prepare for the series, so that was great and has given us some edge and momentum. The best thing was that first-class matches were on so some of the players were already playing red-ball cricket."
Shaheen Afridi's absence for the series is the biggest issue Pakistan have around availability, especially so since Hasan Ali's omission means the hosts' bowling line-up will be inexperienced. Naseem Shah's 13 Tests make him the most experienced bowling option for Pakistan. Fast bowlers Haris Rauf and Mohammad Ali are yet to make their Test debuts, as is spinner Abrar Ahmed who set to play his first Test in Rawalpindi.
"Yes, they have more experience in bowling with James Anderson in their ranks and his experience gives them a bit of an edge," Babar acknowledged. "But our bowling is good and will give a tough time to England. Naseem has been bowling well and whatever England have been doing [this summer], I am confident in my bowling. I have the belief that they will give their best to give us wins."
England have been hampered by a bug that has swept through the camp, leading to the possibility the first Test might be delayed a day, but Babar said Pakistan had no such concerns and had almost settled on a final XI.
For Babar, the biggest challenge comes from the rapid adjustment in formats from the shortest to the longest. Between the start of the Asia Cup in August and the World Cup final, T20Is were the only format Pakistan played, with 25 in total. Less than three weeks later, they gear up for a high-profile three-match Test series at home.
It was a point Babar accepted, without wishing to complain about it. "We all know that there is too much cricket. Every month we have something that comes up. But as professionals we need to be proactive. Coming from limited-overs cricket to Test is difficult but as professionals we are used to it."
Having missed out on ICC title earlier this month, it appears Babar's attention has already turned to the next one. The next five weeks will determine whether Pakistan have done enough to put themselves in contention for it.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000