Test cricket is not easy. But some assignments are easier than others. Pakistan’s series against Sri Lanka falls in that category.
Discussions around this series have essentially focused two names who won’t be part of the contest. Pakistan have grown used to Misbah-ul Haq and Younis Khan bailing them out in Tests but must now learn to live without them. The enormity of that fact will be felt over the coming days and months.
Pakistan begin a new chapter in their incredible history and as is generally the case, there is bound to be some uncertainty. However, Sri Lanka offer the smoothest possible initiation into the post Mis-You era for Sarfraz and Pakistan.
For the islanders, 2017 has been an unmitigated disaster. They have lost 26 out of 38 international matches this year, were blanked 9-0 across formats at home by India and even managed to lose an ODI series to Zimbabwe.
Their entire selection committee resigned during the India series and are pretty much at the lowest point in their cricketing history. In short, it’s advantage Pakistan even before the toss in Abu Dhabi on Thursday.
On paper, Pakistan hold the upper hand. Even without Misbah and Younis, they look the more settled batting unit with Azhar Ali the bulwark of the batting unit and Babar Azam and Asad Shafiq the trusted lieutenants. Sarfraz provides as much leadership in the field as he does lower down the order with the bat.
Against a dispirited Sri Lankan bowling outfit whose main threat is the 39-year-old left-arm spinner Rangana Herath who is quite some way from his best, the omens look good for Pakistan.
Bowling has hardly even been an issue for Pakistan and after leg-spinner Yasir Shah passed a late fitness test, the management will be even more confident. Especially because their opponents managed to cross the 300-run mark only once in six attempts against India.
The biggest factor working in Pakistan’s favour comes from outside the Test arena. It’s the general air of positivity that has enveloped Pakistan cricket in 2017 and Sarfraz is at the front and centre of it. It was the wicketkeeper batsman who inspired Pakistan’s movie-worthy charge to the Champions Trophy title in England and then oversaw a successful T20 campaign against a World XI side at home that heralded the return of meaningful cricket to Pakistan. Admittedly, all that happened in limited overs formats but cricket isn’t played in a vacuum and a sizeable chunk of Pakistan’s Test squad must have savoured those results and the positivity that emanated from it.
Almost every major aspect of cricket in Pakistan is looking up and Sarfraz looks firmly in control of the journey that is gaining momentum.
It is true that the spectre of fixing refuses to leave the Pakistan camp with big names like Sharjeel Khan and Mohammad Irfan caught in the PSL spot-fixing saga earlier in the year. But Pakistan cricket has successfully steered away from that painful reality with success on the field.
Pakistan couldn’t possibly hope for a more favourable fixture at this point in time as they prepare for life after Misbah-Younis, and hopefully right before the full-fledged return of cricket to the country.
The conditions in the UAE won’t exactly be alien to Sri Lanka but for the ‘hosts’, anything less than a clinical performance in the two-Tests series will be seen as a disappointment.
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England seamer Toby Roland-Jones is set to miss this winter’s Ashes after scans confirmed he has a stress fracture in his back.
Roland-Jones had made himself a certain selection if fit in a squad which will be named next week, after taking 17 wickets at an average of under 20 in four matches in his maiden Test summer at the age of 29.
But after initially complaining of pain in his side, he had to leave the field mid-over for Middlesex in this week’s penultimate round of Specsavers County Championship Division One fixtures against Lancashire at Lord’s.
His county issued a brief statement on Friday afternoon, confirming an injury which has a typical recovery time of between six and 12 weeks.
It read: “Middlesex cricket are extremely disappointed to announce that the result of the medical scan which Toby undertook yesterday has revealed that he has a stress fracture in his L5 vertebra (lower back), which will mean that he will take no further part in the domestic season.”
England’s high-profile winter begins when they leave for Australia on October 28.
It is understood the injury leaves Roland-Jones out of contention to be named in the squad next Wednesday, with the first Ashes Test only two months away – almost to the day, in Brisbane on November 23.
England’s selectors must therefore cast their net wider to work out who will be their back-up seamers at the Gabba and beyond.
They are keen to take Mark Wood on tour, with his extra pace such an asset, as long as he can continue to demonstrate his recovery from the heel problem which interrupted his summer.
Roland-Jones’ absence, however, may mean a return for his Middlesex team-mate Steven Finn – while other pace options include Jake Ball and uncapped Somerset bowler Craig Overton.
A potentially depleted bowling stock is not the only issue, with two batting positions far from settled either.
Tom Westley and Dawid Malan are incumbents at numbers three and five, but have not sealed their places by any means.
Former Test opener Alex Hales is a left-field choice among a clutch of other contenders, including his England limited-overs team-mate Jos Buttler.
Their white-ball captain Eoin Morgan has endorsed Hales’ credentials, however, noting he has proved his resilience as well as his ability of late.
Morgan describes Hales as a “massive part of our side”, opening the innings, as England try to consolidate their 1-0 Royal London Series lead over West Indies – starting in Bristol on Sunday in the third match of five.
Against the red ball this summer, Hales has had mixed success – with one double-hundred accounting for more than half his output in Specsavers Division Two for Nottinghamshire – as he has tried to reinvent himself in the middle order since losing his Test place last year.
“When you get dropped from any team there are a lot of questions you ask yourself, and there’s a lot of questions asked of you by a lot of people outside our bubble,” said Morgan.
“So coming back from that shows huge character, and to show the form he has has been incredible.”
Australia paceman Pat Cummins will return home after the one-day international series in India to freshen up for the Ashes Test series, cricket Australia said on Friday.
Cummins, who has a history of injuries, will play out the current five-match ODI series but will miss Australia’s three Twenty20 internationals with India next month.
“Pat has played a considerable amount of cricket this year after a long period away from the game due to injury,” chief selector Trevor Hohns said in a statement.
“His body has handled the return to international cricket well, but we believe the best plan for him ahead of the Ashes series is to return home to refresh, both mentally and physically, before he prepares for (four-day) Sheffield Shield cricket.”
The Ashes Test series against England begins in Brisbane on November 23.
CA said a decision on a replacement for Cummins in Australia’s squad for the India T20 matches will be announced shortly.