Of all England’s difficult assignments this year, none is more taxing than their imminent tour to the desert. There will be times in the United Arab Emirates while playing Pakistan when they will fondly recall the Ashes as a cakewalk and look forward gleefully to facing the world No 1 might of South Africa.
The squads announced for the next leg of this relentless year of Test series (almost all intermingled with the compulsory limited-overs appendages) indicated that the selectors are willing to be bold. Two uncapped players have been picked, along with a third who made the second of his two Test appearances three years ago.
They are Alex Hales, Zafar Ansari and James Taylor. Until recently Hales has been viewed exclusively as a one-day specialist, an opinion reinforced after the 2013 season when he averaged 13.94 in first-class matches. But he has worked hard since then to develop a workable method in the longer game and the selectors decided to ignore his moderate form as an opener in the recent one-day series against Australia.
“I’ve been really happy with how my four-day game has gone in the last couple of years,” said Hales. “It will be my first Test tour, a new environment for me. I’ve got to stay true to myself, keep trusting my technique and keep believing that the changes I’ve made are going to be successful in the international arena.”
It is probable, though not certain, that Hales will become Alastair Cook’s seventh opening partner since the end of his long alliance with Andrew Strauss. There is no place in the touring party for the sixth, Adam Lyth, who had miserable time in the Ashes. Moeen Ali is also a possible contender for the berth, as is, more fancifully, Zafar Ansari.
The selectors have chosen Ansari primarily as the third spinner in a party of 16. He has taken 44 Championship wickets for Surrey in the Second Division this season but has also established himself as an opening batsman in the last two summers and is becoming an authentic professional all-rounder.
Ansari, the younger son of Professor Humayun Ansari, one of the country’s leading researchers into the experience of Muslims in British society, first entered the cricketing conscience in 2011. He was playing for Cambridge University then and dismissed Kevin Pietersen on one of Pietersen’s frequent comebacks.
It was only Ansari’s second wicket in first-class cricket, and since his first had been Cook earlier that season, he was clearly destined for great things. However, the 23-year-old had little time to relish the call. Attempting to take a catch in Surrey’s game against Lancashire at Old Trafford, Ansari injured his left thumb and had to go to hospital. According to Surrey director of cricket Alec Stewart: “It didn’t look good. He was in quite a bit of pain. Fingers crossed for him but seeing him in the dressing room it’s certainly a concern.”
The spare batting place in the party has gone to Taylor, who edged out Gary Ballance after prolonged discussion. While the feeling undoubtedly remains that Ballance will eventually score more Test runs, Taylor deserves this latest opportunity to prove myriad doubters wrong.
“The Test arena is a place I have been desperate to get back to, it is the pinnacle of the sport,” he said. Taylor will be vying for the No 5 position in the Test side, at present occupied by Jonny Bairstow, who is also for now the second wicketkeeper. But Bairstow will also challenge Jos Buttler as first-choice wicketkeeper.
The squad is a little top heavy with pace bowlers – five plus Ben Stokes – but there is the question of gelling for South Africa later in the year. The Test squad will be counselled by Mahela Jayawardene, the superb former Sri Lanka batsman, who has been on England’s radar for a while and may have a trick or two up his sleeve about how to play on turning pitches.
Stokes has been rested for the limited-overs section of the tour after playing in all England’s home matches this summer. There is no place in the short-form parties for either Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad.
England leave on 30 September and will need to make all they can of the two warm-up games. Pakistan are not quite impregnable in the UAE. They lost the most recent Test against New Zealand last November but it was only the third defeat in 22 Tests there since it became their enforced home five years ago. In 2012 they beat England 3-0.
England had 17 Tests scheduled between last May and next January. So far they have played 10, won five, lost four, drawn one and if they are still in credit after the UAE, things will definitely be on the up.
England squads for UAE tour
Test squad AN Cook (capt), MM Ali, JM Anderson, ZS Ansari, JM Bairstow (wk), IR Bell, SCJ Broad, JC Buttler (wk), ST Finn, AD Hales, LE Plunkett, AU Rashid, JE Root, BA Stokes, JWA Taylor, MA Wood.
ODI squad EJG Morgan (capt), Ali, Bairstow (wk), SW Billings (wk), Buttler (wk), Finn, Hales, Rashid, Root, Roy, Taylor, RJW Topley, DJ Willey, CR Woakes, Wood.
T20 squad Morgan (capt), Ali, Billings (wk), Buttler (wk), Hales, CJ Jordan, SD Parry, Rashid, Root, Roy, Topley, JM Vince, Willey, Woakes, Wood.
13-17 Oct 1st Test, Abu Dhabi
22-26 Oct 2nd Test, Dubai
1-5 Nov 3rd Test, Sharjah CC
Limited-overs dates 11 Nov: 1st ODI, Abu Dhabi; 13 Nov: 2nd ODI, Abu Dhabi; 17 Nov: 3rd ODI, Sharjah CC; 20 Nov: 4th ODI, Dubai; 26 Nov: 1st T20, Dubai; 27 Nov: 2nd T20, Dubai; 30 Nov: 3rd T20, Sharjah CC
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