Pakistan present tough challenge for England

Published: Wednesday, July 12, 2006, 23:53 [IST]
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London:Unbeaten in England for nearly a quarter of a century, Pakistan bring a potpourri of audacity, variety and unpredictability to a four-Test series of critical import for the home side starting at Lord's tomorrow.

The tourists ended England's prolonged post-Ashes celebrations with a 2-0 home victory late last year. Now they will Test to the full England's resolve and character before the hosts travel to Australia for the Ashes defence this year.

Much has been made in England of the injuries which have deprived the side of captain Michael Vaughan, fast bowler Simon Jones and left-arm spinner Ashley Giles for the entire season.

Vaughan is a non-starter for the Ashes after a fourth operation on his right knee. The other two have made optimistic noises about a return sometime in September although, realistically, their hopes of touring Australia are remote.

England will also start at least the first Test without Vaughan's stand-in Andy Flintoff, who missed the 5-0 one-day series loss to Sri Lanka with a heel injury.

Even taking injuries into account the feeling persists that England have under-achieved in their three series since defeating Australia with a lack of concentration and rigour allowing Sri Lanka to seize a 1-1 draw in the most recent encounter.

After winning the second Test, England lost seven matches in a row to the Sri Lankans and their bowling in the one-day series was an embarrassment with the spearhead Steve Harmison conceding 97 from his 10 overs in the final match.

Harmison, who missed the three-Test series against Sri Lanka with sore shins, is one player with no intention of playing the injury card.

''We can make as many excuses as we want about injuries but I think it's time we put them to bed,'' he told a news conference yesterday. ''We need to stop making excuses.''

Harmison's role at the ground where he unsettled the Australians last year with his pace and bounce becomes even more important if Matthew Hoggard is unable to take the field.Hoggard had six stitches in his right hand after a teammate trod on it at the weekend and will Test his fitness in the nets this morning.

''I'm not a big fan of Lord's,'' Harmison said. ''I never feel comfortable bowling here. But I've always been successful here.'' Jon Lewis, a similar type of bowler to Hoggard with his reliance on late outswing, is in the squad as a potential replacement while Ian Bell has been recalled to bat at number six in place of Flintoff.

Bell will share the fifth bowler's duties with Paul Collingwood.

Pakistan, who have not lost a series in England since 1982, also have injury problems.

Shoaib Akhtar, who took 17 wickets in the series last year, is absent because of a persistent ankle injury and his opening partner Rana Naved ul-Hasan was ruled out of the tour this week with a groin injury.

There is still plenty of talent among the remaining bowlers with leg spinner Danish Kaneria relishing the chance to play in the latter part of the English season when the pitches are drier and offer most assistance to the spinners.

Pakistan's particular strength lies in their batting.

Inzamam-ul-Haq averaged over a hundred in the last series with a lowest score of 53 and two centuries in the second Test while Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf are consistent accumulators.

Shahid Afridi, who has rescinded a decision to play one-day cricket only, is a destructive batsman and wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal showed his pedigree with 154 in the final Test in Pakistan.

Under the unruffled captaincy of Inzamam and shrewd guidance of coach Bob Woolmer, Pakistan, a side who often prove less than the sum of their parts, appear united without losing their flair for the unexpected.

On current form they start favourites for the forthcoming series and as a bonus they have all the components necessary for success at the World Cup in the West Indies early next year.

Teams (from):

England: Andrew Strauss (captain). Marcus Trescothick, Alastair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell, Geraint Jones, Liam Plunkett, Matthew Hoggard, Steve Harmison, Sajid Mahmood, Monty Panesar.

Pakistan: Salman Butt, Imran Farhat, Shoaib Malik, Faisal Iqbal, Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf, Inzamam-ul-Haq (captain), Shahid Afridi, Abdul Razzaq, Kamran Akmal, Mohammad Sami, Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria, Mohammad Asif, Samiullah Niazi.

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