After England’s resounding victory at Old Trafford last week, it would be easy for supporters to get a little carried away. Slip up, however, and the hosts will forfeit any chance of a series victory. At 1-1, a victory for either side will guarantee that they at least draw the series. Slip up England could, too. An injury for Ben Stokes and some middle-order frailty ensures that the possibility of a Pakistan victory remains relatively high.
While the Old Trafford test provided a number of clear positives for the hosts, such as the batting of Alastair Cook and Joe Root, the continued excellence of Chris Woakes, and the return to the team for James Anderson, a number of issues remain. Alex Hales is yet to make a score this series and, with Pakistan arguably providing a sterner test than the Sri Lankans, some are questioning whether he should keep his place. Similarly, James Vince is yet to stamp his authority in test cricket, and will be praying for a substantial innings soon, as much for his own peace of mind as anything else. Gary Ballance’s recall also prompted a few questions to be asked of the selectors, and he is yet to prove their decision right. Stokes’ injury also leaves them a batsman light.
Cook and Root cannot be expected to score hundreds in each of their next four innings. Both of them will probably get a low score at some point, and they need to be supported by the other players around them. Pakistan have four excellent bowlers, who are perfectly capable of producing two good balls between them, that could account for England’s in-form men. Should that happen, then Hales, Vince and Ballance will have to stand up. Whether they can or not remains to be seen, but the tourists would certainly fancy their chances in that situation.
Hales is working exceptionally hard at his game, and he is the least under threat of the aforementioned trio. His form until this point is of some concern, though. He got a good ball from Rahat Ali at Lord’s, but was outclassed by Amir in the first innings at Old Trafford. He did not look comfortable at any stage against the left-armer on that occasion, which is not particularly reassuring. Question marks hang over him, but his efforts against Sri Lanka should keep him safe for now.
James Vince, on the other hand, has not done enough this summer. He missed out against Sri Lanka, and is yet to pass fifty in this series, too. Vince is as aesthetically pleasing as they come, standing tall when hitting through the covers and boasting quick hands through the ball. Test cricket, though, has proved a stern challenge for him so far. He, like Hales, has to address his vulnerability outside off stump, and fast, if he is to maintain his spot. Northamptonshire’s Ben Duckett is in the form of his life, and a number of other England Lions players have recently staked their claim too. Scott Borthwick was in contention to replace Nick Compton before the Lord’s test, meaning that the selectors do have options. Gary Ballance’s recent return to test cricket might allow him to keep his spot for the rest of the series. He has only just been recalled, so it would be very surprising if England dropped him anytime soon. His form is still a concern though, adding to the vulnerability of the hosts’ middle order.
Notwithstanding their problematic batting order, England are still quite well-placed. Woakes is in the form of his life, and will replace the injured Stokes as England’s all-rounder. Finn will likely slot into the free bowling slot, offering Alastair Cook a number of options. Stokes’ injury is a blow, as much for the player himself as for England. From a bowling perspective, he adds some much needed energy and aggression as the ball gets older. Bowling is not the main problem for the hosts, though, and so Stokes’ omission shouldn’t be a problem in that respect. Should the hosts successfully build on the momentum gathered at Old Trafford, they should be able to beat Pakistan once again. It has been a long time since that game, however, and Pakistan will know that they need only take two early wickets (those of Cook and Root) and they will immediately be in a dominant position.
If Pakistan win the key moments, such as the early stages of Cook and Root’s innings, then they can win the game. If England can capitalise on their strengths, then they should win the game. It is important that the selectors continue to consider their options, as the hosts definitely have a frailty that could well be exposed.