England wary of slow start against Pakistan
England know another sluggish start to a Test campaign could prove costly as they go in search of a first series win over Pakistan in a decade.
Wednesday sees a three-match contest get underway with the first Test at Old Trafford.
And while England can point to recent series victories over most of their rivals, their last such success against Pakistan was back in 2010.
That campaign, however, was overshadowed by a 'spot-fixing' scandal at Lord's which led to bans and jail terms for then Pakistan captain Salman Butt as well as pacemen Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir.
England have lost the first Test in eight of their last 10 series -- including during last month's 2-1 win over the West Indies that marked international cricket's return from the lockdown.
It is a statistic they are all well aware of, with in-form England pacemen Chris Woakes admitting: "I'd love to be able to put my finger on it and I'm sure the management and the team would as well.
"It's not coincidence but it's almost, it is just a coincidence that we can keep losing that first Test match.
"But we want to put that right," he added, with the eyes of the global cricket community set to turn to Manchester in the absence of any other major international fixtures outside of England amid the pandemic.
Both of Pakistan's past two series in England -- 2016 and 2018 -- ended in draws, which should encourage the tourists this time even though they go into the first Test on the back of just a couple of intra-squad warm-up fixtures compared to their 'match-hardened' hosts.
"We've had good preparations and team bonding," said Pakistan coach Misbah-ul-Haq on Monday.
"Still we feel there is always a slight nervousness when you just play Test cricket after a long, long time (away)," he added ahead of his side's first Test in six months.
Misbah accepted that how his batsmen coped with James Anderson and Stuart Broad -- who now both have more than 500 Test wickets each after Broad reached the landmark against the West Indies -- would go a long way to determining the outcome of the series.
But the former Pakistan captain was also excited by a pace attack that includes the youthful promise of teenage rising star Naseem Shah as well as the accurate Mohammad Abbas,and towering left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi.
Naseem has impressed Pakistan fast-bowling great turned bowling Waqar Younis and Misbah so much when they saw him in action in Lahore, the coach said they had no qualms about fast-tracking a "complete bowler" into Pakistan's side in Australia last year.
Naseem became the youngest bowler to take a Test hat-trick against Bangladesh in February and he showed a liking for English conditions with 10 wickets in the two practice matches at Derby.
"He is one who could win a Test match on his own," said Misbah of Naseem.
Pakistan, however, could still deploy two spinners at Old Trafford in Yasir Shah and Shadab Khan.
The West Indies failed to post a single individual century in their recent series. Pakistan will hope the likes of Abid Ali, the first man to score a hundred on both Test and one-day international debut, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Babar Asam and Asad Shafiq can provide the runs they need.
Meanwhile, England must decide whether to stick with four quicks in their XI after Ben Stokes couldn't bowl in the West Indies decider because of a quad injury.
The star all-rounder was, however, reported to have bowled with good pace in the nets on Monday.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Martin Rickett