England must unpack UAE flat tracks
England spent last year making Test history and they will need to do the same this month and next to beat Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates.
England will still be number one at the start of the three-Test series on January 17. From the Dubai International Cricket Stadium, it moves to the Sheikh Zayed Stadium at Abu Dhabi before concluding in early February where it began.
Since being forced to stage ‘home’ series overseas following the March 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka team in Lahore, Pakistan have played two Tests at each ground.
The most recent game, against Sri Lanka at Dubai in late October, ended in victory for Misbah-ul-Haq’s men but the previous three were drawn.
Given the flatness of the sun-baked wickets, those three stalemates are hardly surprising. Such conditions, and Pakistan’s unbeaten Test series record in 2011, reflect the challenge facing England to inflict a first Test defeat on their ‘hosts’ in the UAE.
It is a reasonable assumption that both venues are ‘bat first’ grounds. While this has been the case in the two Dubai Tests, Pakistan have twice opted to bowl first at Abu Dhabi.
South Africa punished this decision in November 2010, amassing 584 for nine declared in their first innings with AB de Villiers unbeaten on a Proteas Test record 278 and Tanvir Ahmed taking 6-120.
Pakistan avoided the follow-on by making 434 all out and, after South Africa declared on 203 for five, the hosts reached 153 for three to secure a 0-0 draw.
Misbah’s decision to insert Sri Lanka at Abu Dhabi initially paid off as Junaid Khan’s 5-38 helped limit Tillakaratne Dilshan’s team to 197 all out and opener Taufeeq Umar’s career-best 236 set up a declaration at 511 for six.
However, Kumar Sangakkara’s 211 and Prasanna Jayawardene’s 120 – they added 201 for the sixth wicket – steered Sri Lanka to the safety of 483 all out, leaving Pakistan 10 overs to bat in which they reached 21 for one.
In both Abu Dhabi Tests Pakistan selected just one specialist spinner, although slow-bowling all-rounder Mohammad Hafeez had a reasonable workload with the ball in each. South Africa fielded two specialist spinners but Sri Lanka only one, a policy counterbalanced by Dilshan’s bowling.
The two Dubai Tests suggest the importance of spinners there. Pakistan have twice employed two specialists, in addition to Hafeez, and the Proteas did likewise. Sri Lanka’s decision to go with one besides Dilshan cost them in part, although being dismissed for 239 in their first innings proved decisive.
Pakistan’s seamers and spinners shared the wickets on that occasion and Azhar Ali’s maiden international century underpinned a total of 403 all out in reply. Saeed Ajmal’s 5-68 then limited Sri Lanka to 257 all out, setting Pakistan 94 for a 1-0 series win which they achieved with nine wickets and more than a day to spare.
Ajmal and his fellow spinners were less effective in the maiden Test at Dubai, a high-scoring game in which only 25 wickets fell.
South Africa skipper Graeme Smith’s century set up a score of 380 all out, and Morne Morkel’s 5-54 aided a first-innings lead of 132. Unbeaten tons from Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis, who put on 242, allowed Smith to declare on 318 for two, setting Pakistan an improbable 451.
Younus Khan, playing his first Test for 16 months, and Misbah created a position from which victory was possible but they settled for a draw with 131 and 76 respectively, sharing an unbroken alliance of 186 in a total of 343 for three.
Graeme Swann, the highest-ranked Test spinner, and Monty Panesar, who has not played for his country since July 2009, are likely to have plenty of overs to bowl. Their duel with Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Hafeez should be fascinating and could decide if England make history this year.