By Kishan Vaghela
England’s two most substantial problems over the years have been Australia and facing spin bowling in sub-continental conditions. Having passed the first hurdle, a 3-2 series victory in the Ashes this summer, England travel to the United Arab Emirates to face Pakistan, an opponent who defeated them 3-0 in the Test series in the same country in 2012, for three Test matches, four ODIs and three T20Is.
However, England may not face the nemesis that they often encounter on such winter tours this time around. Pakistan’s once-lethal off-spinner Saeed Ajmal has lost his verve since the remodelling of his bowling action, after having been banned in September 2014 for an illegal action, and has subsequently been dropped from the squad. Additionally, experienced all-rounder Mohammed Hafeez has been banned from bowling in international cricket for a year, again for an illegal action.
Ajmal and Hafeez share 230 Test match wickets between themselves and will therefore be a huge loss to captain Misbah-ul-Haq. Their replacements come in the shape of 29-year-old Yasir Shah and 36-year-old Zulfiqar Babar, both having played exactly 10 Test matches for Pakistan, with the former outshining his senior counterpart with 61 wickets at an average of 24.81 compared to Babar’s 42 wickets at an average of 37.40.
Despite Nathan Lyon’s 16 wickets in the recently concluded Ashes series, England have players who refuse to shy away from the arduous task of facing spin bowling. Joe Root may have cherubic facial features, but he exemplifies a batsman full of experience and confidence. Earning the praise of former England batsman Kevin Pietersen is no mean feat these days, but Root has successfully become “the star of this England team” according to the 35-year-old.
Root will once again be the linchpin of the side and will require support from the likes of Alistair Cook, who comparatively had a worse summer against Lyon, although that may be due to the angles created by an off-spinner to a left-hander. However, the ongoing debate involves Cook’s opening partner. Alex Hales failed to impress in the ODI series against Australia, continually appearing unsure about how to construct a limited overs innings, highlighted by a top score of just 22 in the series.
The German term Schadenfreude best describes Moeen Ali’s status in the team. With Hales’ relative failure, the onus is now on Moeen Ali to secure the second opening position in the UAE. An excellent player of spin, Moeen Ali may be the perfect company for Cook against Pakistan.
South Africa are also involved abroad. The Proteas will take on India in three T20Is, five ODIs and four Test matches, but will aspire to improve after their humiliating eight-wicket defeat to India A in their opening T20 warm-up game.
Experienced duo JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis looked in fine touch, and it is difficult to imagine a series in which AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla will not contribute heavily with the bat, given the former’s encouraging form when playing for the Royal Challengers Bangalore and the latter’s roots.
However, numerous problems arose in the bowling department, as neither Kyle Abbott, Chris Morris nor Kagiso Rabada offered a glimmer of hope to the selectors as possible deputies to Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, who themselves are striving for form.
More unsettling was the failure of front line spinner Imran Tahir to find the correct length. However, his experience with the Delhi Daredevils in last season’s Indian Premier League will aid him in adjusting to the Indian pitches.
Having announced two squads for the T20Is and ODIs, India are in a confident mood ahead of the series. Shikhar Dhawan has seemingly recovered from a fractured hand suffered in the Galle Test match against Sri Lanka, after hitting a sublime 150 for India A against Bangladesh A. There is no space in either squad for all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, who once again loses out to his younger counterpart Axar Patel.
In the T20I squad, Sreenath Aravind, the left-arm seamer, has been recalled after he became the fourth highest wicket-taker in Karnataka’s victorious Ranji Trophy campaign. Initally called up for the ODI series against England in 2011 before an injury saw him miss out on the series, the 31-year-old has stated that he “expected” this recall.
The surprise inclusion in the ODI squad was Gurkeerat Singh Mann, the middle-order bastman for Punjab. A special 87 against Australia A and a scintillating all-round performance in an unofficial ODI against Bangladesh has earned the 25-year-old a call-up, and if selected, his off breaks will undoubtedly give MS Dhoni another option alongside the likes of Suresh Raina and Ambati Rayudu in addition to valuable runs in the lower order.
Australia were also due to contest a two-match Test series in Bangladesh, but have pulled out of the tour, citing concerns regarding player safety and security. Cricket Australia stated that a security assessment had confirmed the possibility of a terrorist attack in Bangladesh targeting Australian nationals.
Photograph: Nic Redhead via Wikimedia Commons