Cricket Expert & Columnist
Potent and prepared
Pakistan's attack will present England with the test they need prior to this winter's Ashes, says Mike Atherton.
Last Updated: 28/07/10 3:20pm
Hopefully the upcoming Test series between England and Pakistan will be both competitive and entertaining.
I write that because - given the uncompetitive nature of Bangladesh at Test level and a one-day series against Australia 'out of context' in a non-Ashes summer - it has been a desperately dull international season so far, and we're fast approaching August already.
Much of the focus has been on the tourists' bowling, and quite right too because it is a decent Test attack, but the batting line-up looks feeble and England should exploit that weakness to gain the edge in this series.
One of the reasons people are going slightly overboard about this Pakistan attack is that there aren't that many decent ones about in Test cricket at present.
Mohammad Aamer is full of skill, ability and potential; Umar Gul is a good bowler, particularly with the older ball; Mohammad Asif is a very skilful medium pacer who should do well in English conditions; but they are not Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram in their pomp.
How big a role the spin of Danish Kaneria - and England's Graeme Swann - will play in the series largely depends on how conditions develop.
They could have plenty of work to do if each side goes in with a four-man attack. But the forecast for Nottingham suggests it will be cloudy for three or four days and as Trent Bridge has been a swing-friendly ground in recent times, the seamers should do some damage.
So England's batsmen will have to be on top of their game - not least Kevin Pietersen who has been rather short of runs of late.
Pietersen took a tumble in training this morning but is moving fine and hitting the ball well. He didn't look that motivated against a modest Bangladesh attack earlier in the summer but this is a step up and with the Ashes around the corner, Pakistan should bring the best out of him.
He is joined on the team-sheet by Eoin Morgan, who now has four Tests to press his claims for a place on this winter's tour of Australia after getting the nod over Ravi Bopara.
It's tough on Bopara given the weight of runs he has scored for Essex recently but England need to find out about Morgan now before the winter; there are questions he has to answer.
Is he tight enough outside off-stump? How well does he play the short ball? Can he bat in a Test match context? By the end of the series the picture should be a whole lot clearer.
In Ian Bell's injury-enforced absence, Jonathan Trott also has a chance to make his case. He has been scoring a lot of runs - albeit against Bangladesh - but lingering doubts persist over his temperament and idiosyncrasies at the crease and now Morgan is breathing down his neck.
Wicketkeeper Matt Prior and seamer Steve Finn both return to the international fold this week with points to prove.
Personally, I think Prior will be England's first-choice Test keeper for some time and I wouldn't be surprised to see him come back into the one-day side, either.
His keeping has been sound over the last 12 months and he's the perfect player to come in a number seven, in as much as he's a selfless player whether his place is under threat or not.
On the basis of his 8-52 for Nottinghamshire in the second innings of their Championship clash against Warwickshire, Stuart Broad appears in good form but James Anderson has not quite hit his straps of late. There is nowhere better than Trent Bridge under heavy skies for him to find some form.
I'll be most interested to see how Finn goes though, given that he was withdrawn from cricket to take part in a 'strength and conditioning' programme when he was at the top of his game and full of confidence.
The question now is whether he can rediscover the type of form we've witnessed in his four Tests to date. Do you want a bowler in form and taking wickets or do you take the long view that they need to strengthen up?
I think everyone would accept that Finn needed to get his body right but the question comes down to timing. We'll find out how rusty he is later this week.
Pakistan, for their part, should be firing and ready to go after beating Australia at Headingley to earn a 1-1 draw in the MCC Spirit of Cricket series.
There's no doubt that new skipper Salman Butt has got one of the toughest jobs around in Test cricket simply because of the unrest that surrounds the Pakistan team.
Given the changes of personnel within the team and the selection committee in the last six months, I doubt he has taken on the captaincy with any sense of certainty that he will be in the position for an extended period of time.
Despite that inherit lack of stability, though, he has made a reasonable start and it appears Waqar has been a calming and stabilising influence too as coach.
There is undoubted talent in this squad but do enough of the players have the temperament for Test cricket?
Kamran Akmal, for example, is of a generation that has been brought up mainly on a diet of one-day cricket, and in particular Twenty20 cricket, so having the wherewithal to bat for long periods of time may well be difficult.
I don't see how a captain can have an impact on that aspect of a player's game immediately.
By backing the younger players rather than recalling the likes of Mohammad Yousuf and Younus Khan, the selectors have shown great confidence in his squad but Butt may well have to accept that there will be some bad days ahead.
I can't help wonder what might lie in store for him if Pakistan do suffer a heavy defeat or two.