Cricket in the Desert: England v Pakistan 2015: A preview
England are in much better shape at the end of this summer than we were at the start. Thrashings in the World Cup by New Zealand & Australia, albeit in a different format, and our lacklustre performance in the Windies didn't bode well for the two Test series in the summer. To draw with New Zealand was creditable but to regain the Ashes in those rollercoaster five Tests was beyond all expectation. What's more the exuberant way in which we played those games suggested a new style of approach which can only be encouraging. Perhaps it was the new management giving young players licence to play their natural game. May be, too, the carefree approach of McCullum's Kiwis rubbed off on Cook and his team.
So we go to the Emirates No 3 in the world but only a point ahead of Pakistan. We would have taken that at the start of the summer. Pakistan, though, on what, sadly, has become their home territory, are unbeaten in the UAE. Indeed McCullum rated the Kiwis' win in Sharjah last year, where they won by an innings to draw the series, as his greatest achievement. When we were last there in 2012 there was no combatting the spin of Abdur Rehman & Saeed Ajmal, though the latter's doosra, of course, which was so lethal, has now deemed to be illegal - he may not even play. We were thrashed 3-0.
We go there, though, with some places in the team solidly nailed. Root is our star player, currently No 3 in the world batting rankings. Stokes came of age this summer, as a batsman and, as he showed at Trent Bridge, as a bowler. He is also a potent force in the field. Cook's captaincy came out of its shell in the last two series and was much more proactive and aggressive.
Broad, No 2 in the world, & Jimmy, No 5, are a potent pace attack but we'll need more than pace in this series. Yet again this summer Moeen showed that he is not to be written off as a bowler and he is, of course, a wonderful, wristy, attacking batsman. Hopefully, Rashid will at last do more than carry the drinks and will have a chance to show the wicket taking skills that have been so important for Yorkshire.
But there are some big question marks. Firstly, who is going to open with Cook? Cook has hinted strongly that Moeen might do the job in this series, presumably to find space for Rashid. But seems like a stop gap to me. We wasted a chance to blood Lyth in the Windies and look at what happened to him. Are we going to do the same to Hales? I'd much rather he took the opening berth out here and that Rashid is brought in in place of a quickie.
Then there's the keeper. Buttler has kept well and unobtrusively, which is as it should be, but sadly his batting has been a big disappointment. Bairstow for Buttler as keeper? That would be another way of finding space for Rashid.
As for touring in the UAE, my only experience is Dubai. It was a very new ground in 2012: just a concrete oval in the middle of nowhere with open seating throughout. Facilities were good. It's dry at the ground, of course, but the grub was good and guys came round all the time with water, sandwiches & tea. But it's pretty soulless. The ground was very empty, even on the Friday, with almost as many English as Pakistani, though there was a good crowd of Pakistanis on the Saturday. The worst thing was the dearth of taxis to take you away from the ground. It was as if no-one had bothered to tell them there was a Test match on. I don't know what it will be like this time around but you might be well advised to sort out your return from the ground in advance.
The alcoholics amongst us will be pleased to know that after drying out at the game feeding your habit in the hotels and bars of Dubai is pretty easy. But Dubai itself is boring. Unless you're like Flintoff and are happy to lie in the sun all day, once you been to their awful malls, which are just massive temples of consumerism indistinguishable apart from their size from anywhere else in the world, and you've been up the tallest skyscrapers in the world there's not much else to do. It's just an artificial pile in the middle of the desert where genuine Dubaians are fat cats served by thousands of Sri Lankan, Pakistani and other guest workers. They say Abu Dhabi has more appeal. I'm going for the cricket to Sharjah, which is completely dry, so I'm staying, with Higgy, in Dubai and will taxi over for the cricket.
Still, wherever you go, the cricket should be enthralling and it can't be bad sitting in the sunshine with your mates, albeit without a beer in your hand. Enjoy .