England found themselves in the unusual position of crossing their fingers for more subcontinental spin after their bowling attack struggled to make inroads on the first day of Test preparations in Sri Lanka.
With a week to go before the first Test, the tourists began the first of two warm-up matches by watching a strong Board XI rack up almost 400 runs on a defiantly unresponsive pitch in Colombo.
As acclimatisation work it undoubtedly did the trick, with 89.5 overs in energy-sapping humidity, 14 of their 16 fit players taking the field and eight turning their arm over.
Whether or not any of them advanced their own cause considerably is harder to say. Four from the home side made half-centuries, three of whom retired out, leaving a stumps score of 392 for nine which could easily have looked more concerning.
The surface gave little encouragement to the pacemen, who took two wickets in a combined 39 overs, and offered much less for the slow bowlers than is anticipated in Galle.
England have traditionally fared poorly on spinning tracks, but would rather take their chances than toil in vain on slow, low surfaces like this.
“It was a good batting wicket, there wasn’t a lot of spin,” said Moeen Ali, whose two for 64 represented England’s best return.
“Hopefully the wickets are a bit different in the Test matches. I hope they spin a lot more for everybody. This was quite slow, a dead sort of pitch. If you look at the previous Test matches here they’ve all been spinning big and probably not as flat as this wicket.
“It’s not a concern, they scored a bit more than we would like but the guys needed to get overs in their legs.”
Predictions over England’s likely XI for the series opener seemed trickier to make by the end of play than they had been beforehand.
Spinner Jack Leach was a surprising absentee but he, along with seamer Olly Stone, may have benefited from sitting out in unfriendly conditions. Stuart Broad, Sam Curran and Chris Woakes had the opposite fate.
They may find themselves vying for one shirt in the Test side but none stood out from the pack, Woakes the only wicket-taker of the three but also the most expensive. Moeen’s fellow spinner Adil Rashid, meanwhile, again looked less confident with red ball in hand after a highly-impressive limited-overs campaign.
The wicketkeeping issue, muddied somewhat by Jonny Bairstow’s ankle injury, also took a curious development as Jos Buttler, Ben Foakes and Ollie Pope each took a turn with the gloves.
“I think there are (places to play for) definitely,” said Moeen. “It’s the balance of the team – are we going to play three spinners? Two spinners? What seamers are going to play? Do you need pace or control?
“That’s for the coach and captain to decide.”
England will bat for a full day on Wednesday, regardless of wickets lost, with a chance to see a new-look top three of Rory Burns, Keaton Jennings and Joe Denly.
“We’re going to have to play well and I think we’ve got the players to do that,” added Moeen.
“I do think it’s a very good wicket but it’s more about guys spending time in the middle. You saw they had a couple of guys retire and maybe we’ll do the same.”
Sarfraz Ahmed’s men come into the series on the back of a 3-0 clean sweep of Australia in the same format while the Black Caps are returning to action after a long hiatus.
As the two T20 heavyweights get ready to lock horns at Sheikh Zayed stadium, we look at the key talking points.
MEN IN GREEN ON A ROLL
Pakistan affirmed their T20 credentials in the one-sided series win over Aaron Finch’s Australia. The No1 ranked side in the format, Pakistan have won 10 consecutive T20 series in a row under Sarfraz’s captaincy.
The side is a delectable mix of the young and the old with a healthy representation of youngsters mixed with experienced performers in the form of Shoaib Malik and Sarfraz.
With confidence brimming in the side after their excellent run in the format, the ‘hosts’ will want to carry that momentum against the Black Caps who could be a little rusty after their unusual break from international cricket.
BLACK CAPS BACK IN ACTION AFTER SEVEN-MONTH WAIT
It has been some time now since New Zealand featured in an international match. The last time the Black Caps played an international match was in the final Test against England which culminated on April 2.
Since then, Pakistan pacer Mohammad Abbas has picked up 36 Tests wickets in clashes against Ireland, England and Australia while India skipper Virat Kohli has recorded six international tons (three in Tests and three in ODIs).
As such, some rustiness should be expected from Kane Williamson’s men but they will be eager to get back into things after warming their heels on the sidelines for more than half the year.
ANOTHER CHANCE FOR YOUNG SAHIBZADA FARHAN
Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed stated in his pre-match address to the media that he will field the same playing XI which featured in the final T20 against Australia on Wednesday at Abu Dhabi.
Explosive opener Fakhar Zaman remains sidelined with a knee injury and will miss out on Wednesday’s clash but his absence means that young Sahibzada Farhan gets another outing in Pakistan colours.
The 22-year-old batsman gave a good account of himself in the final T20 against Australia with a 38-ball 39 in what was just his second appearance in international cricket. With Fakhar expected to return for the remaining clashes, the right-hander will be eager to stamp his mark in Wednesday’s clash.
WHEN: Wednesday, October 31
WHERE: Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi
TIME: 20:00 GS
PAKISTAN: Sahibzada Farhan, Babar Azam, Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik, Asif Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), Faheem Ashraf, Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali, Usman Khan.
NEW ZEALAND: Kane Williamson (capt), Colin Munro, Ross Taylor, Glenn Phillips (wk), Colin de Grandhomme, Mark Seifert, Corey Anderson, Ish Sodhi, Tim Southee, Adam Milne, Lockie Ferguson.
The Blackcaps have not played any international cricket since the completion of the Test series against England at the start of April this year.
“There is a lot of cricket being played in different competitions and also the guys have had some cricket but it’s an unusually long time between internationals,” the Kiwi skipper said on the eve of the clash.
“I guess it makes the guys very excited to get back involved and it is a great country to come to and play cricket against Pakistan, who are one of the strongest teams in the world at the moment.”
Williamson, however, knows that taking on the No1 T20-ranked Pakistan in their ‘home’ ground will not be an easy task given how easily they dismantled Australia in the preceding series.
“Obviously Pakistan are a strong side. That’s something we’ve known for a long time. The last time we played against them was at home in New Zealand and it was a tough series,” said Williamson.
“Coming over here, they are extremely strong in these conditions. Their rankings suggest that as well. They have had a lot of success in the format in recent times,” he added.
“We know it’s a tough challenge and one that we are looking forward to.”
The Blackcaps will have to make do without the services of experienced opener Martin Guptill for the series, but Williamson is backing the other players to step up in his absence.
“It’s a shame we don’t have Martin for this series. He’s obviously is a world class player for us and a big performer but it also provides the opportunities for some other guys mentioned, the guys who have come from the New Zealand A team, and that’s the nature of it.”
The Kiwis have handed all-rounder Corey Anderson a recall for the series along with batsman Glenn Phillips. Uncapped spinner Ajaz Patel is the newest addition to their T20 squad.