The anxiously awaited series between Pakistan and England starts with the first Test at Lord's on Thursday May 17. While England are expected to be in top form as they are preparing for a much bigger challenge of regaining the `Ashes' held by Australia since 1989, Pakistan should not be underrated either. England may well be the front-runners, for they enjoy the inherent advantage of home grounds, weather and crowd but Pakistan are also on record, having subverted these elements on many previous occasions.

It is a high profile season for England and top of the agenda, is the plan of defeating Pakistan in the Test series. A victory in this series will provide them a huge boost to face the mighty Australians while defeat is bound to sap their morale and foist their foray to grab the Ashes. Some observers say the contest against Waqar's boys a tasty appetizer for England, while the main course comes later, in the shape of Steve Waugh's Australians. With such lopsided assessments of Pakistan's prowess it would be fitting for Waqar's charges to spoil the first course and diminish England's appetite for victory.

There is no doubt that England have had a marvelous resurgence under skipper Nasser Hussain and coach Duncan Fletcher, winning four series in a row including the one against Pakistan, which they wrapped up in thrilling style. In that series at the end of last year, the first two tests were drawn. When they clashed in the last encounter at Karachi, it was a magnificent run-chase by the visitors that ended in near darkness, giving England their first series win in Pakistan since 1961-62.

Similarly Pakistan enjoy the honor of convincingly winning the last 3 series in England. The impetus was provided by Pakistan's first ever victory over England at the Oval in 1954, in which Fazal Mahmood emerged as the hero with a magical haul of 12 wickets for 99 runs. This was followed by 6 more test victories achieved on English soil between 1982-1996.

Both squads contain highly talented cricketers. While England has never been known to lack in harmony, Pakistan has faced some problems in the past. However, Waqar Younis, the new captain, has succeeded in turning the group of otherwise immensely talented individuals into an effective unit. This was proven in the team's four consecutive victories in the ARY Gold Cup at Sharjah, notwithstanding a disaster in the final.

No doubt, the Pakistan squad has about half-a-dozen youngsters who have set their foot on English soil for the first time and one hopes, the two-week period they spent practicing the game before the 1st test must have prepared them for the big day. Though, believe me, going out at Lord's to bat or bowl for the first time does make for some wobbly knees!

It was nice on England's part to provide the visitors with some side matches for acclimatization purposes and the rain did disappear to allow for a few days of cricket.

The 1st match that Pakistan won by an innings and 87 runs against the British Universities was more like mauling the minnows. It also provided good batting practice to Saeed Anwar (89), Saleem Elahi (78) and Waqar (50*). While Mushtaq Ahmed emerged the hero with a fabulous haul of 10 wickets for 51 runs in 2 innings, Wasim Akram (4 for 18) and Waqar Younis (3 for 30) also had a good workout and got a feel of English conditions.

The 2nd match against Derbyshire was drawn with Azhar Mahmood scoring 80*, Faisal Iqbal 65 and Imran Farhat 46. Saqlain Mushtaq grabbed 6 wickets for 34 runs. The wonder speedster Shoaib Akhtar, who used the cherry in a match after a long lay off, managed to take only 2 wickets for 62 runs in 23 overs in the two innings.

The 3rd match against Kent, in which the opening pair of Saeed Anwar (201) and Saleem Elahi (94*) excelled, was abandoned after two days due to rain.

On form, fitness and comparative strengths of the two teams, England have an edge over Pakistan, for the now infamous `unpredictability factor' hovering over the visitors'. England have a strong batting line up led by Nasser Hussain, Mike Atherton, Marcus Trescothick, Graham Thorpe and the new-comer Ian Ward. Big things are expected from this England A's opening batsman who is expected to bat lower down, if given a chance in the first Test. Planning to take the field with seven batsmen, England are likely to miss the services of all-rounder Craig White who is reported to be down with a back injury.

All said and done, in spite of a solid batting line playing on its own pitches, England shall still have to face the devastating duo of speedsters Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. They happen to be the main wreckers during Pakistan's previous victories in England in 1992 and 1996. In the wings lurks, Mohammad Sami, ready to have a go, plus two talented medium pacers Abdur Razzaq and Azhar Mahmood. England batsmen may be happy not to confront the thunderbolts of Shoaib Akhtar who has slim hopes of playing at Lords for lack of match fitness.

The spinners Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq are in top form these days and are quite capable of routing any side on their day. Mushy almost baffled the England batsmen with his guile by claiming 6 for 78 at the Oval and 5 for 57 at Lords during the 1996 tour. Both spinners must have some tricks up their sleeves to exploit the local conditions, having played a lot of county cricket in England.

Pakistan's batting will revolve around the openers Saeed Anwar and Saleem Elahi or Imran Farhat followed by Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf Youhana, Abdur Razzaq and Younis Khan. While Saeed and Inzi are no less than giants, the others shall need a good opening stand and tons of inspiration to succeed in England.

England's battery of speedsters comprising Darren Gough, Andy Caddick and a young left-arm pacer Ryan Sidebottom, supported by spinner Michael Vaughan, will be more than a handful on their own pitches. Compared to the visitors, their control on movement of the ball in heavy and humid atmosphere shall certainly be better. Considering this important factor, they are expected to play with four seamers and a spinner.

England's squad shows that except for introducing two young players in the list of 13, they have maintained nucleus of the team that brought them success during last year. Craig White's absence would be a blow for them because of his importance in balancing out the side, providing genuine pace and determined batting, down the order. Dominic Cork, who has played only one first-class match after withdrawing from the winter tour of Pakistan, may not yet be at his best.

With both the sides well balanced and determined, the Lord's test shall present cricket lovers an excellent feast of cricket. While Pakistan go to avenge their defeat at Karachi, England would try to emerge victorious to remain resurgent and get ready for Australia. Fielding that has often let Pakistan down will play an important part in the test series.

Let's cross our fingers, wait and watch the better team win.