England’s Joe Root and Pakistan’s Sarfraz Ahmed pose with the Test series trophy.
LONDON: After a winless winter in test matches, England is hoping the return of a fully fit and focused Ben Stokes will inspire his team to victory over Pakistan.
The all-rounder’s absence was acutely felt as England was thrashed 4-0 by Australia in the Ashes at the turn of the year, with Stokes missing following an altercation outside a Bristol nightclub in September 2017.
He was allowed to return in March for England’s two-match series with New Zealand, but an undercooked Stokes – who was hardly available to bowl – was unable to change the fortunes of an already tired and depleted squad, which lost 1-0.
Having rebuilt his fitness since then, Stokes will be a genuine bowling option when the first test of the summer, against Pakistan, begins at Lord’s on Thursday.
“You can see he’s buzzing and desperate to get back out there,” England captain Joe Root said on Wednesday. “You watch Ben train, and he sets the standard. He is a stand-out. If you watch a whole (practice) session, he does everything at match intensity and he helps drive it.
“To have his bowling as well will add to our attack and give us a different dimension. He knows that when he gets out there he will give absolutely everything for England.”
Root himself is set to take on more responsibility by moving up to number three in England’s batting order, while the recall of Jos Buttler and debut of 20-year-old spinner Dom Bess will also add freshness to the England squad.
Buttler has impressed in this season’s Indian Premier League, while Bess was a surprise inclusion following an injury to his Somerset teammate Jack Leach.
Bess has only played 16 first-class matches, but his 63 wickets in those appearances have convinced the England selectors he’s worthy of the opportunity.
“He is a very confident young man,” Root said. “He has a lot of energy… and seems like he is really clear about what he wants to do in the game and how he is going to approach this week. That is all you can ask of somebody going to make his debut, which is really exciting for me as captain.”
Bess might not be the only player making his test debut – Pakistan’s squad contains three uncapped batsmen.
Fakhar Zaman, Saad Ali and Usman Salahuddin could all earn their first cap for a side in a transition, while Imam-ul-Haq – nephew of former Pakistan captain Inzamam – made his bow in the longest form of the game against Ireland two weeks ago.
Having scraped a narrow five-wicket victory in that match, Pakistan is relieved to have fast-bowler Mohammad Amir available following concerns over his knee.
“The senior players have to show responsibility,” Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed said. “Amir and I have played here before – so have Azhar (Ali) and (Asad) Shafiq. We have to lead from the front, and (provide) a good platform.”
Lord’s holds mixed memories for Amir. The left-arm bowler was banned after being caught spot fixing at the ground in 2010, before making his test return as Pakistan won at the home of cricket six years later.
Amir starred as Pakistan claimed a surprise 2-2 draw on that tour and although then captain Misbah-ul-Haq and fellow batsmen Younus Khan have since retired, the tourist side is confident of making an impact once more.
“I was part of the team in 2016,” Sarfraz added. “This team is different. … We had a lot of seniors then, but at the moment we have couple of good young players.
“Our test team is in a rebuilding phase — so if these youngsters do well here and gain confidence then it will be good for their future, their careers and for Pakistan team.”
ENGLAND: Alastair Cook, Mark Stoneman, Joe Root (capt), Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow (wkt), Ben Stokes, Jos Buttler, Chris Woakes, Dominic Bess, Stuart Broad, James Anderson.
PAKISTAN: Azhar Ali, Imam-ul-Haq, Haris Sohail, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Sarfraz Ahmed (capt/wkt), Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Aamir, Mohammad Abbas, Rahat Ali.