Not too long ago, prospects of having any sort of Test Cricket this summer looked immensely bleak as the novel coronavirus pandemic continued to wreak havoc across the globe. Yet, here we are now with five matches under our belt and the sixth and final Test of the summer just around the corner.
England are on the verge of completing yet another series victory in their backyard. They are 1-0 up in the three-match Test series against Pakistan with the final fixture to commence in Southampton from Friday. Pakistan have not lost a single Test series against the Three Lions since 2010 and will be eyeing to maintain their streak by leveling things at the Ageas Bowl.
Pakistan domineered much of the first Test at Old Trafford, but they still ended up on the losing side as things took a mighty shift on the final day. Pakistan's foremost goal here will be to trample the hosts this time around and not only draw the series but also collect significant points on the ICC World Test Championship Table.
The Men in Green gave Fawad Alam a go in the rain-dominated 2nd Test. The southpaw returned to the whites of Pakistan after a gap of 11 years. Alam had a nightmarish return to the international stage, though, as he was adjudged LBW while still being on 0 and the persistent rains and the worsening light did not offer him a second chance to strap up his pads.
Pakistan have showcased their enterprising mercuriality and are capable enough to level the series. Their fast bowling is an evident strength and Mohammad Abbas, especially, keeps looking more threatening as the series progresses. He will have a massive role to play if Pakistan are to outsmart England. Mohammad Rizwan's gutsy innings to save Pakistan from getting bowled out at a below-par total was another positive from the previous game. Babar Azam, too, has shown glimpses of his highly talked about potential and this week might just be his week given he has not notched up that big score yet.
The tourists are not expected to tinker at all with their combination since there was hardly any Cricket in the previous match. The head coach, Misbah-ul-Haq expressed his desire of leveling the series and dedicating the triumph to the Pakistan Cricket fans as a late Independence Day gift:
"It is always a special moment to celebrate Independence Day during a Test match and Pakistan has some great memories from previous such occasions in England: our first ever Test win in England in 1954 came just after the Independence Day, as did the famous win at Lord's in 1982 and, from a personal point of view, our victory at The Oval in 2016 when we leveled the series on 14 August itself. Playing on the Independence Day gives us extra motivation to perform for the nation and we wanted to give people the gift of victory."
Pakistan Probable XI: Shan Masood, Abid Ali, Azhar Ali (C), Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Mohammad Rizwan (WK), Fawad Alam, Yasir Shah, Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, Mohammad Abbas.
England, on the contrary, will be pleased with their overall performance in the series, thus far. The bowling attack has done exceptionally well throughout the summer while the batting has also been considerably better since the start of the series. Zak Crawley and James Anderson were the obvious positives from the 2nd Test. Crawley crafted a lovely, confidence-building half-century on the final day of the 2nd Test and looked positive right from the word go. England could do a lot with his run-scoring ability in the 3rd Test - something that could bring the Pakistan bowlers under pressure. Anderson, too, had a terrific outing following a string of criticisms on his effectiveness. He proved his mettle, yet again, and justified his longevity with a consistently nagging and threatening spell.
Despite leading the series and the threat of a series defeat totally removed, Joe Root would want to win this game - not only to finish the season on a high but also because of the larger context that is attached to the match in terms of the World Test Championship. England are currently positioned in the top half of the points table but would dearly love to climb further atop and breach the top two positions. For this particular game, the hosts might consider rotation amongst their fast-bowling battery with Jofra Archer likely to earn back his spot. No change is expected in the batting line-up, however. England's batting coach, Jonathan Trott has urged his players to combat the testing conditions and lauded Dom Sibley's ability of gritting it out there in the middle:
"It is about going out there and combating the conditions we find out there and both are capable of doing that. We've seen them both [Sibley and Crawley] bat time in the first-class game and Dom Sibley in Test match cricket so we'd like to see some more of that."
England Probable XI: Dominic Sibley, Rory Burns, Zak Crawley, Joe Root (C), Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (WK), Chris Woakes, Sam Curran/Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, Dom Bess, James Anderson.