Pitch battles: What should England expect on their return to Pakistan?

Sarfaraz Ahmed inspects the pitch during a training session ahead of Pakistan's first Test against England AFP via Getty Images

It is 17 years since England last played Test cricket in Pakistan, and more than two decades since they managed to win a game there (one of only two victories in 24 attempts). In 2000-01, Nasser Hussain wanted his team to "stay in the series for as long as possible", a plan which came together beautifully as they stole the spoils under cover of dusk in Karachi.

This time around, Brendon McCullum has made it clear that draws are very much the last refuge of this England side - and even suggested that the tourists would accept being beaten as a result of pushing for the win. Their "Bazball" approach has been well documented, but will it pay off in conditions associated much more closely with grinding out results? And even if their batters can capitalise on what may be docile surfaces, do they have the tools to take 20 wickets, as Australia achieved during their 1-0 series win earlier this year?

Batters up
With Test cricket only having returned to Pakistan three years ago, due to the security situation and the reluctance of teams to tour, there is obviously a limited sample size on which to base assumptions about the style of cricket that might succeed. "I've told guys to not go in there with too many preconceived notions," Usman Khawaja said before Australia flew into the country in February. "We've toured India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, but I wouldn't be going over to Pakistan thinking they're going to be exactly the same wickets."

As Khawaja was to discover, on his way to a series-leading aggregate of 496 runs at 165.33, Pakistan can be very hospitable for batters. In fact, since December 2019, no Test-playing country has a higher average runs per wicket than the 37.28 achieved in Pakistan.

That is reflective of a general trend in Pakistan's domestic cricket since the latest restructuring of the Quaid-e-Azam competition in 2019, which helped put an end to some of the problems that had been affecting their first-class production line. In the last three years, the first-class batting average in Pakistan has been 33.75 - compared to 26.14 in the three-year period before England's last tour, in 2005-06 - and the percentage of draws has risen from 38.1 to 50.8.

The peak (or perhaps that should be nadir) example here might be Australia's visit to Rawalpindi, venue for the first Test between Pakistan and England, when 1187 runs were scored and only 14 wickets went down across three innings. Ramiz Raja, the PCB's chairman, admitted afterwards that the pitch had been less than ideal, while also seeming to confirm suspicions that Pakistan did not want to roll out the carpet for Australia's quicks.

"This is a three-Test series, and we need to understand that a lot of cricket still remains to be played," he said. "Just for the heck of it, we can't prepare a fast pitch or a bouncy pitch and put the game in Australia's lap."

Pace versus spin

It is worth keeping that comment in mind, because the Australia series seems to have been an outlier, featuring four of the five highest first- or second-innings scores made in Pakistan since Test cricket's return. In two other games played at Rawalpindi, Bangladesh were shot out for 233 and 168 (in 2020) and South Africa managed scores of 201 and 274 (2021).

Contrary to expectations in other parts of the subcontinent, where crumbling pitches bring greater rewards for spin, Pakistan has long proved fertile ground for fast bowling. Over the last three years, the raw stats emphasis this point - quicks have taken their wickets at an average of 34.10 and with a strike rate of 67.1, compared to 47.53 and 95.0 for spinners.

But digging into the numbers presents a more nuanced picture. Pakistan's spinners have been perfectly serviceable in their own conditions, averaging 36.81 across eight Tests - even outbowling visiting seamers (who have averaged 43.20). In domestic cricket since 2019, the returns are notably similar - pace averaging 35.13 and striking at 63.3, compared to 36.58 and 69.1 for spin. In this year's Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, the leading wicket-taker was mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed, who has been called up by Pakistan and could make his Test debut over the coming weeks.

What the data doesn't tell you is about specific skills and attributes. Australia hung in the series much like Hussain's side 22 years ago, but they would not have won in Lahore without the combination of high pace and reverse swing served up by Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc. And while Nathan Lyon's 12 wickets for the series came at a cost of 44.91 and strike rate of 109.5, his match-clinching efforts at the Gaddafi Stadium included becoming the first spinner to take a fourth-innings five-for in Pakistan since 2000.

There are other imponderables for England to get to grips with, not least a virus that could throw selection up in the air. Multan, venue for the second game of the series, has not hosted a Test since 2006 and looks pretty flat going by the domestic data. If Rawalpindi retains a covering of grass, it might yet suit James Anderson - who turned 40 in July and is the only survivor from England's 2005-06 visit - and Ollie Robinson; Pakistan, with a potential 90mph/145kph debutant in Haris Rauf, could opt to leave it bare. And while Anderson is also adept at bowling reverse, Mark Wood's absence for the first Test, and the reliance on two part-time spinners in Joe Root and Liam Livingstone, may dull their cutting edge. By the time the series gets to Karachi, it might yet be a case of damage limitation.

In his autobiography, Playing with Fire, Hussain wrote of his team's 2000-01 success: "I know some people criticised the negative nature of the cricket on that trip, but what we were supposed to do? Hand victory to them on a plate by playing as if we were in England?" Ben Stokes has vowed to do just that - and we'll soon find out whether he and McCullum can be successful in plotting an alternative route to victory in Pakistan.