The last time Misbah-ul-Haq was here in 2016 he was leading the Pakistan team on the field and demonstrating that as a 42-year-old he was still capable of some impeccable press-ups at the end of an arduous Test at Lord’s. Now he is back as the team’s head coach, looking no older but just as phlegmatic.
On Monday he looked forward to the Test series with calm, measured optimism, which is not so surprising since Misbah has considerable talent at his disposal and for the past month his squad has been preparing diligently for the first game at Old Trafford.
“It’s been a good time in the UK,” said Misbah. “We came here after not playing anything for three months when the players were at their homes. But we’ve had good preparation and team bonding so I am pretty much satisfied. We have seen the conditions; we have a good idea of how the wickets are going to play. That it is a big help for us. It’s encouraging that the pitches are helping the spinners,” he added even though the vast majority of the wickets in the West Indies series went to pacemen. However, neither side had a spinner with the penetrating qualities of the wrist-spinner Yasir Shah, who was so influential in the 2016 series.
Misbah’s confidence must also stem from the quality of his pace attack, which is likely to include Mohammed Abbas, the canny seamer, Shaheen Shah Afridi, the lanky 20-year-old left-armer and the 17-year-old Naseem Shah, who is fast. As ever Pakistan have not been shy of thrusting a young prodigy into their team. It is one of many attractions of their cricketing heritage.
So Misbah was sharing a familiar narrative. “Waqar Younis and I just saw him [Naseem Shah] in the Gaddafi Stadium and he just looked like a complete bowler and we decided that even though he hadn’t played first-class cricket he should go to Australia. By the time he arrived there he had played four games and taken 17 wickets. We could see the potential but now we’ve got the evidence at international level; he’s already got a hat-trick and five-fers. He is one who could win a Test match on his own.”
Pakistan probably know the identity of their best bowling attack. England may not be so sure. Chris Woakes, now back in his same room at Old Trafford, has been effective in the last two Tests; he has 81 Test wickets at 22.53 apiece in this country but he takes nothing for granted. He is very keen to play against Pakistan on Wednesday but acknowledged: “Competition for bowling places is hard. We saw that in the last series. Obviously I hope I’ve done enough to keep my spot this week. We’ll see what the coach and captain decide.”
The Pakistan series is an intriguing prospect. By contrast the ODI matches in Southampton against Ireland may not have captured the imagination of the public. The last game is on Tuesday, when England are expected to wrap up the series 3-0. Two of the older hands, Sam Billings and David Willey, have excelled so far while newcomers have yet to make much of an impact. The youngest player, Tom Banton, is having to learn fast.
Banton acknowledged that he has yet to get used to batting at four and that last winter he was weighed down by the volume of franchise cricket. “I might just have to be a bit more careful about which tournaments I go to,” he said. However, he is unlikely to shun the IPL, which will now take place from 19 September to 10 November in Dubai. Meanwhile Reece Topley, after his return to England colours on Saturday, has endured another setback, a groin strain that means he is unavailable for the final match against Ireland.