Azhar Ali: Pakistan have England’s ‘fragile’ top order in our sights


Pakistan has England’s “fragile top order” in their sights as captain Azhar Ali said that the hosts’ batsmen haven’t looked confident since Alastair Cook retired in 2018. He called England’s bowling line-up “brilliant” but played down any sense of pressure handling an experienced attack.

England have struggled to nail down a regular top three in recent years, not least since Cook’s final Test in September 2018. In their 18 Tests since then, England have used six different opening pairs (five excluding nightwatchman Jack Leach), and no pair has opened together more than nine times. Rory Burns seems to have secured his place but remains inexperienced, with only 15 caps to his name, while Dom Sibley (6 Tests), Joe Denly (14) and Zak Crawley (4) will be fighting it out for the other two spots during their series against West Indies.

“Their bowling attack is brilliant in their own conditions and there is no doubt about it,” Azhar said before leaving for England. “Other than Jofra Archer we have faced all of the – Broad, Anderson, Woakes, Stokes and even Wood was there, but we have still won against them. Looking at their batting, their top order has been fragile for some time since Alastair Cook retired. They have tried a lot of combinations lately and might be looking a bit more settled, but they haven’t been really confident with it. So there is something for us in it to look at.”

Pakistan have a decent away record in England since 2016, winning three-Test out six Tests in two drawn series, which finished 2-2 (in 2016) and 1-1 (2018). In fact, that record in England is among the best for a leading Test side in the last four years: during that time, Australia have won two Tests in England with India, South Africa and West Indies winning one game each since 2016.

Azhar said he felt his side had done well on previous tours in England conditions: Pakistan are the only visiting team to score 500+ in a Test in England since 2016, and Azhar suggested that their other successes there – including the 2017 Champions Trophy – could provide them with the belief to succeed again on this tour.

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Pakistan’s inexperienced fast bowling line-up might be considered as a weaker link as the talented youngsters Naseem Shah and Shaheen Shah Afridi have no experience playing Test cricket in English conditions. Only Mohammad Abbas, who played two Tests on the 2018 tour and has spent two seasons playing county cricket for Leicestershire, has much in the bank. Yasir Shah, Pakistan’s main spinner, has ample experience but he has had a poor run of late in Tests, averaging 75 with 10 wickets in his five appearances since the beginning of 2019.

“In terms of number of games, of course, England has tons of experience in their bowling,” Azhar said. “But we have the skills: they [our bowlers] are young and have a lot to offer. They can give trouble to any team in the world. In a very short time, they have achieved a lot and that is a good sign.

“You can’t buy experience immediately, and for that, you obviously have to pay more, but then we have a very experienced coaching staff with Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed. Their expertise and knowledge can be utilized and they will be helping them. So I believe, when this combo of experience and skill is brought together, that we can produce a great result. I am confident about this.

“About spinners, we are not really sure about the conditions at the time of the Test series. The weather right now is great there but it changes frequently and suddenly. We don’t know how it will pan out this summer. We will bring our game plan according to the conditions. We have a larger pool of players and have a lot of flexible options in our touring party.”

Pakistan’s 20-man advance group lands on Sunday afternoon in Manchester and will undergo a 14-day quarantine period at New Road, Worcestershire before transferring to Derbyshire’s County Ground on July 13. Another batch of players that include Wahab Riaz, Shadab Khan will join the squad in the next 10 days if they receive a second negative result for Covid-19. The tour comprises three Test matches starting in the first week of August and three T20Is stretching into September. All six games will be played behind closed doors.

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