Alastair Cook must solve the dilemma of Dubai if he is to lead his country to a piece of modern cricket history in their Test series against Pakistan.
No touring team has yet beaten Misbah-ul-Haq’s men since Pakistan relocated their home Tests to the United Arab Emirates – and after England finished the opening match of three on the front foot, their hopes of becoming the first to do so are rising.
Cook began his tenure as England captain three years ago, on the first tour after their 3-0 whitewash against Pakistan here, with a memorable series win in India.
England went 1-0 down in late 2012, yet fought back to win 2-1 and become the first from their country to succeed in India since 1984/85. Cook puts the ongoing challenge on a par but can be encouraged approaching the second Test of three, at the Dubai International Stadium today, by a better start this time.
In India three years ago, despite a trademark tour-de-force century from their new captain, England lost initially in Ahmedabad.
Last week in Abu Dhabi, another Cook special – almost 14 hours of it, for a monumental 263 – allowed a brief shot at victory before bad light ushered in a stalemate after all.
Asked to compare the difficulty of two of Test cricket’s toughest assignments, Cook said: “It’s the same challenge really – two good sides in their home conditions. No one has beaten Pakistan here yet, and it would be great to be the first side to do it.”
The next hurdle is an especially tricky one, though, at a venue where team selection is more critical than ever. Cook admits he is tempted to stick with the line-up which finished so strongly last week. The potential of spin is obvious – and, after England’s Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali bowled Pakistan out for 173 in their second innings, the hosts have their own fit-again matchwinner Yasir Shah available again.
Yet Cook also knows from personal experience, in England’s last Test in Dubai, that seam can be effective too – especially before the sun gets to work each day – as Stuart Broad and James Anderson proved by taking seven wickets between them to hustle Pakistan out for just 99 on that occasion.
Ben Stokes’ well-being is another complicating element for England.
He came through nets with no obvious ill-effects yesterday, having missed training 24 hours earlier with a stomach bug.
Cook, coach Trevor Bayliss and fellow management staff, therefore, have had much to ponder.
They could be seen doing so too for several minutes – and taking a long, quizzical look at the pitch – before England began their practice session.
Should they decide not to gamble on Stokes’ fitness, the obvious contingency is a Test return for his fellow all-rounder, Samit Patel. But as a third spinner, rather than fourth seamer, Patel represents a significant tactical shift.
Factoring all of the above, Cook’s assessment of conditions will be crucial. “It should be a better cricket wicket [than for the first Test],” he said.
“It will turn more and be a bit quicker – last time [in 2012] there was more for the seamers. It’s a unique stadium – the shadow is still there at 10am, and that allows for dampness in the wicket and movement.”
Three spinners is a contingency England will be prepared to risk if necessary, though. -“It would have to be an option with a dry wicket,” Cook added.
“We said at the beginning of the tour this squad has that option - all the spinners bat well.”
The presence of Stokes, who finished with a flattering first-innings four for 57 as Pakistan pushed for their declaration last week, is reassuring for Cook.
“Ben’s bowling at six gives us balance – we bat down to eight definitely,” he said. “He’s had a virus, a 24-hour bug.
“He didn’t look very well yesterday apparently. He should be fine, but we’ve got to be careful. ”
There was no pun intended, given Stokes’ condition, when his captain added: “My gut instinct is we stay unchanged.”