Pakistan have opted to trial several unknowns in their Test squad against England, their inclusion as well as some key omissions leave several selection questions answer ahead of the first match.
The first match in Rawalpindi will be the 10th meeting of the sides across different formats in just over three months, and the first Test series they have contested outside of England in seven years. Since international cricket returned to Pakistan, the home side have a good record at Rawalpindi and haven’t lost a Test match at the venue in four chances.
Pakistan haven’t played a Test match since July when they lost the final match of the series against Sri Lanka, a dramatic fourth innings collapse costing them a second consecutive series win over the side and vital points in their bid to make the World Test Championship final. They are still mathematically in with a chance of qualifying for next year’s final at Te Oval, but they will need to win the majority of their matches against England and, subsequently, New Zealand to keep their hopes alive.
The squad Pakistan have announced includes several uncapped options, as well as a recall for former captain Sarfaraz Ahmed. There was no place for Yasir Shah, and Shaheen Afridi’s injury absence opens the door for a new fast bowler to join Pakistan’s seemingly never-ending backstock.
The selection questions facing Pakistan ahead of the first Test against England
Who bats at No.3?
Babar Azam is set to return to his more suited place at No.4 after a brief foray into the top three against Sri Lanka, Pakistan have several options in their squad to take up the anchor position. Azhar Ali has only passed fifty once since his mammoth 185 in March this year, although that innings did come on the same ground as the opening Test, and he was dropped for Pakistan’s most recent Test. Shan Masood could replace him, with excellent recent first-class form and some strong performances in T20I cricket bolstering his claim.
Where does Rizwan bat?
Just one of Mohammad Rizwan’s 24 Tests have seen him out of possession of the gloves, but the inclusion of Sarfaraz in the squad after a three-year Test absence paves the way for Pakistan to play Rizwan as a specialist batter. If they were to do so he would most likely bat at six but could bat as high as five, Fawad Alam’s omission leaving a gap in the middle order. That scenario would probably allow Salman Ali Agha to retain his slot as the all-rounder at No.6.
The more likely option is that Rizwan will bat at six, with or without the gloves, and Saud Shakeel will make his debut at No.5. That leaves the question of Pakistan’s balance. Do they want to go batting heavy on flat decks and play Sarfaraz at seven? Or take the pressure off the bowlers by including an all-rounder after Rizwan? Equally, Rizwan could bat at seven himself if the selectors opt for a top-heavy approach, which would mean Agha slotting in above the keeper.
Does an all-rounder play? If so, who?
As mentioned above, Agha looks set to play as an all-rounder if Rizwan plays as keeper at No.7. However, if Pakistan opt to play Sarfaraz instead there will be little room for him. Indeed, in his two Tests so far, against Sri Lanka, he has only taken one wicket, and his inclusion as a genuine middle-order all-rounder is questionable, especially with a first-class average below 40.
Even with Rizwan or Sarfaraz batting at seven, the tail for Pakistan looks long without the inclusion of a bowling all-rounder. Mohammad Wasim Jr could fill this role, batting at eight and bowling at pace, although his reputation with the bat has yet to be proved at the highest level. Having only played seven first-class matches, it would be a risk, but he’s impressed in the shorter formats with his reverse swing.
Who partners Naseem?
With Shaheen Afridi recovering from an appendectomy after limping off the field in the T20 World Cup final, Pakistan must delve into their reserves to maintain their famed pace attack. As already stated, Mohammad Wasim Jr could fill this role. Equally, Mohammad Ali could win a debut Test cap, a sharp seam bowler who has already played alongside Naseem on the Pakistan domestic circuit.
Haris Rauf has also been included following his success in the shorter formats. He again has limited first-class experience but has taken five-for twice in his eight caps, and has the pace to rattle England even on the flattest of surfaces.
What does the spin attack look like?
Yasir Shah’s omission from the squad indicates the selectors are looking for the 36-year-old’s successor, with mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed in line for a debut if Pakistan decide to play two spinners. 76 wickets in 14 first-class matches is an impressive resume, and he will be an unknown quantity for England who will have to contend with his massively varied repertoire.
Mohammad Nawaz and Nauman Ali have Test experience, but Ahmed’s inclusion would add some variation to the attack, and give Babar another option on what are likely to be flat pitches.