By Ed Osmond
LONDON (Reuters) – A toothless bowling attack, brittle opening batting partnership and callow spin options leave England with much to prove in seven home tests against Pakistan and India starting on Thursday.
Joe Root will lead out the side at Lord’s in the first of two matches against Pakistan, desperate to put behind him a heavy Ashes defeat in Australia and a rare loss to New Zealand which have left England in a state of flux and fifth in the world test rankings.
The good news for the hosts is that they usually play much better on their own soil where conditions favour seam bowlers but there are so many question marks against the team that Root should be taking nothing for granted.
James Anderson, 35, and 31-year-old Stuart Broad are still the mainstays of a pace attack which struggled to make inroads in the Australian top order.
Although they have taken over 900 test wickets between them, Anderson and Broad are nearing the end of their stellar careers and England need Mark Wood, their quickest bowler, Chris Woakes and Ben Stokes to shoulder more responsibility.
The spin bowling options are thin.
Moeen Ali has been dropped after toiling in Australia where, shorn of confidence and unable to generate much turn, he never looked like taking many wickets.
Jack Leach played against New Zealand and looked promising but he was ruled out with a broken thumb and England have called up uncapped 20-year-old Dominic Bess.
He has taken only 63 first-class wickets and although he is a useful batsman and fine fielder, England may not select Bess at Lord’s if they opt for an all-seam attack.
Alastair Cook will open the batting in his 155th test alongside Mark Stoneman, a partnership which failed to convince in Australia or New Zealand and has been retained largely due to a lack of viable alternatives.
Cook has endured a lean run for the past 12 months, two double centuries including a superb unbeaten 244 in Melbourne bolstering his average amidst a run of low scores.
His footwork looked all at sea in New Zealand and the obdurate 33-year-old left-hander needs early runs to extend his prolific career.
Pakistan, seventh in the test rankings, rarely enjoy English conditions and a young team captained by wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed is likely to include only four players who took part in their last series in England two years ago.
Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq are their most accomplished batsmen and Mohammad Amir will lead the pace attack.
Amir bowled superbly in last year’s Champions Trophy in England, inspiring Pakistan to an emphatic victory over India in the final, but he lacks proven support and the absence through injury of energetic leg-spinner Yasir Shah will be keenly felt.
Root, promoted up to number three in the batting order, will look to take advantage of his opponents’ frailties and nothing less than a convincing victory will do for England ahead of a more demanding five-test series against top-ranked India.
(Editing by Toby Davis)