England welcome Pakistan with a game of ‘Guess Who?’

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London

Well, that escalated quickly. It’s only been a matter of days since the soggy denouement to England’s third and final ODI against Sri Lanka – a match that had begun amid rumours of a few fresh faces in the ranks, but had continued with a solitary change to the line-up and another win-toss-and-bowl display, as Eoin Morgan targeted a full hand of World Cup Super League points before the heavens opened to rain on his run-chase.

Changes are afoot now, all right. Eighteen of them to be precise, following the scrambling scenes on Tuesday morning, as seven positive Covid cases in the England camp led to the self-isolation of the other close contacts therein.

And so, all bets are off for the coming contest – which was always expected to be a stiffer challenge than Sri Lanka were ever able to pose, though these new circumstances are rather taking the Mickey (as Mickey Arthur himself has acknowledged).

Pakistan are currently third on the Super League table, having played half as many games as England, and though they didn’t play ODIs on last year’s bio-secure tour, they emerged with a share of the T20I series with a thrilling defence of 191 in the decider at Old Trafford.

The lack of jeopardy was palpable throughout the Sri Lanka leg, particularly for England’s fans, returning to the stands, but sometimes you really do have to be careful what you wish for.

Nevertheless, what an opportunity these coming games present for England’s hastily-assembled stand-ins.

There are players in this emergency party who may well find themselves playing their first and only international matches in the coming days – men such as Gloucestershire’s David Payne, who admitted he couldn’t stop smiling after getting the call from Silverwood while on red-ball duty in Cheltenham, and Middlesex’s John Simpson, one of the most accomplished wicketkeepers in the country, and now the only specialist on parade.

But there are players too for whom this is a massive opportunity to restate credentials that, for one reason or another, have been marginalised in the intervening seasons (step forward James Vince and Ben Duckett) or simply to fast-track their own standings as ones to watch for the future – Surrey’s Will Jacks being a particularly prime example.

Others, such as Somerset’s Lewis Gregory, have found it hard to gain traction in their limited opportunities to date.

His eight T20Is have so far offered little opportunity to show off his range as a No.7, fifth-change bowler. A 50-over outing gives far more scope for meaningful contributions across the board.

And then there’s the skipper. Ben Stokes was meant to be easing back to match fitness at Durham after breaking his finger at the IPL and saving his energies for an intense second half of the year – starting with the five Tests against India (not to mention his vital status as a drawcard for the Hundred), then morphing into the World T20 and the Ashes over Christmas and New Year.

Now he’s answered the call as if it’s the final day at Headingley or Cape Town all over again – “help us Ben Kenobi, you’re our only hope”.

A penny for Pakistan’s thoughts amid all this chaos. They’ve been holed up in their Derby Travelodge, a familiar base-camp following last year’s Test preparations, no doubt plotting their strategies for tackling the new-ball threat of Sam Curran, Chris Woakes and David Willey, and undermining the Bairstow-Roy-Root axis at the top of England’s World Cup-winning batting order.

Instead they’ll now be cobbling together some hasty plans for the likes of Phil Salt and Brydon Carse.

The county streams may help them in that regard, but despite England’s undignified departure, it’s unlikely that their outgoing management forgot to leave their own scouting reports pinned to the dressing-room fridge.

One player that Pakistan won’t need to make many plans for is Saqib Mahmood. They saw signs of his potential in the T20I series last summer, but moreover, they watched him grow into his role as one of only two overseas seamers at the first leg of this year’s postponed PSL – the other was no less an icon than Dale Steyn.

With 12 wickets in 18.1 overs across five appearances, he was the tournament’s leading wicket-taker at the time of the bubble breach in March, having thrived on the strike-bowling responsibility handed to him by his Peshawar Zalmi captain, Wahab Riaz.

He translated that attacking threat into red-ball cricket this summer too, with a thrilling five-for to seal the Roses match for Lancashire in May, and of all the reserves drafted into England’s emergency squad, he’s among the closest to making a proper push for first-team honours.—Agencies

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