Geoff Boycott prepares for his debut as England captain © Getty Images

Ask anyone about controversial England tours to Pakistan, and 1987-88 or 1968-69 are the most likely to spring to mind. But sandwiched in between those two was a series which was, in its own way, almost as miserable as the others. If the 1977-78 Tests had been played under the modern spotlight of television they would be ranked right up there. As it is, they are largely forgotten.

The tour took place against the bitter backdrop of the launch of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket. England had decided not to play their Packer rebels, and although Pakistan had agreed to follow suit, public pressure for their board to think again was growing even before the tour kicked off. By the eve of the first Test, the Pakistan rebels - Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Imran Khan, and Mushtaq Mohammad - were contacted in Australia and, to the surprise of many, including Imtiaz Ahmed, Pakistan's chairman of selectors, they were among no fewer than 23 players named in the squad for the match. In the end, the rebels were not included in the XI, but the problem was not about to go away.

After two successive draws, the feeling on the ground was that the Pakistan board (BCCP) would bow to public pressure ahead of the series decider at Karachi. Those thoughts were confirmed when news broke that three - Zaheer, Imran and Mushtaq - were on their way back from Australia.

The England camp were angry. Their view - which was largely supported by the Pakistan side which had played in the first two Tests - was that it was wrong to draft in players who had turned their backs on official cricket to sign for Packer. Wasim Raja was reportedly so upset at the prospect of losing his place to Mushtaq that he shaved off his beard and pondered retirement. The confusion was compounded by the refusal of the Pakistan board to clarify whether the trio's return was at its behest.

The situation continued to deteriorate in the days leading up to the Karachi Test. England's players finally made an official statement saying that they were "unanimously opposed in principle to players contracted to World Series Cricket being considered for selection for official International Cricket Conference Test matches." The press release was read by Mike Brearley, the captain. It was his final act before heading home. His arm had been broken in a warm-up match, and he handed the responsibility of leading England to Geoff Boycott.

The phoney war rumbled on until the eve of the game, when the three Packerites (as the press had labelled them) appeared at Pakistan's pre-match net session. That coincided with a BCCP announcement claiming the trio had arrived under their own steam and that they had refused to make "an unconditional and unreserved apology" for not being available for the 1977-78 season. At the nets, the atmosphere between the three and the remainder of the Pakistan squad was particularly hostile.

Boycott leads England onto the field © Getty Images

Soon after, the BCCP finally climbed down off the fence with a statement to the effect that it did not recognise Packer, and that it would not consider picking players who had signed for him. "The BCCP has decided to depend on the talent that is available today and will be available in the future," read a statement. "The board has therefore advised the chairman and members of the selection committee to restrict their choice to those players who will be available at all times to serve cricket, owing loyalty to the established authority and not to the highest bidder."

The crisis was averted, but the strength of feeling, certainly in the England camp, was strong and it is possible that the inclusion of any of the Packerites might have led to the game being scrapped. Even if the match had gone ahead, some of England's first-choice players would almost certainly have stood down With hindsight, however, cancellation might have been preferable to what did happen.

The match bordered on torpor. England took nine-and-a-half hours to make 266; Pakistan's first innings lasted well into the fourth day, although they would have secured more than a 15-run lead had Phil Edmonds not returned 7 for 66 as their last seven wickets fell for 51. Second time round, England were, if anything, worse. Boycott, who made 56, managed to make one scoring stroke in 100 minutes in the final session of the fourth day. Starting their innings one over before lunch, England closed on 114 for 1.

Pakistan were hardly blameless, with an over rate barely over eight an hour . That became even slower when almost a quarter of an hour was lost through the repeated need to remove oranges, thrown at boundary fielders, from the outfield. Play was, mercifully, called off an hour before the end by the mutual agreement of the captains.

It was Mike Gatting's Test debut - he made 5 and 6, falling lbw in both innings. And the umpire who gave him out the second time? Shakoor Rana. Their paths were to cross again a decade later.

Boycott afterwards blamed the pitch , the constant distractions and interruptions, and Pakistan's attitude to defeat as a national disaster as the causes of the failure to get positive results. "Few," observed Wisden , "would challenge his views."

But as Boycott and England headed to New Zealand, they might have thought their troubles were over. They had barely started. In the weeks that followed England lost to New Zealand for the first time, bowled out for 64 chasing 137, and that one result was enough for New Zealand to secure the series as well.

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Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo