IF ENGLAND had unilaterally devised the most severe examination of their Test credentials this winter, they could hardly have come up with anything more exacting than the 2015-16 schedule.
The International Cricket Council’s Future Tours Programme has delivered a tough schedule for an England side fresh (perhaps not the most accurate word) from a set-to for the Ashes. They have travelled first to the United Arab Emirates to put their new winning habit to the test against Pakistan. It was here almost four years ago that, top of the world rankings at the time, England arrived in the mood for consolidation in a new and unknown environment. They failed to come to terms, though, with entirely unaccustomed conditions and left whitewashed three Tests later.
Alastair Cook was a captain in waiting in early 2012, under Andrew Strauss.
This time, after self-confessed “wobbles” over the past 12 months over whether he is still the man for the job just three years into it, it is all down to him to steer the ship. Cook has been here before, of course, in both senses, and had his share of shame and glory already, leading his country to 5-0 defeat in Australia two winters ago but also a breakthrough series victory in India a year earlier.
If those are the extremes of his tenure to date, he knows his and England’s fortunes in the next four months may well determine his historic standing among Test captains.
This desert venture, against “hosts” unbeaten on their new patch since having to relocate five years ago because of security concerns, is just a stepping stone on a winter odyssey. It is an especially hazardous one, though, liable to shift in the sand – and one England must negotiate to keep confidence intact for a very different, potentially even more difficult challenge, taking on the world’s number one team South Africa over Christmas and new year.
If they come through their next seven Test engagements intact then Cook and new coach Trevor Bayliss will both deserve significant credit.
The captain has begun by talking a good game, as of course he must. It is onwards and upwards after the epic 3-2 Ashes victory.
Time will tell, and could yet do so alarmingly quickly.
In January and February 2012, England had no answer to the slippery spin of Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman.
They had a sighter of the off-spinner the previous summer, but it made no difference as he and his left-arm orthodox partner brought about a series of hapless collapses.
This time it is leg-spinner Yasir Shah and another slow left-armer, Zulfiqar Babar, who present the most obvious threat.
Zulfiqar is 36 and has just 10 Tests to his name after making his debut less than two years ago. Yasir has also played 10 Tests, in which he has bamboozled many of the world’s best among his 61 wickets at under 25 each. Together they are an unknown quantity for the tourists, who may not have been prepared by a pair of two-day warm-up matches against Pakistan’s second string in Sharjah before the first Test in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. There, Ajmal and Rehman bowled England out for 72 in their second innings in 2012 and Pakistan have never lost at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in seven matches.
All of the above might be worrying enough, if England were beginning on the crest of a wave.
But the home win over Australia contained some brilliant performances yet, as a whole, was a curious mix of landslide victories inflicted by each side in turn with no discernible pattern of true superiority.
England are uncertain about who will open the batting alongside the captain and the balance of their attack in still alien conditions – and have several batsmen short of convincing form. They arrive with more questions than answers.