When they met in the United Arab Emirates in 2012, Pakistan annihilated the then world number one Test team 3-0, thanks to spinners Saeed Ajmal (24 wickets) and Abdul Rehman (19 wickets).
As they begin a three-match Test series in Abu Dhabi from Tuesday, Pakistan will rely on the same weapon but in the hands of leg-spinners Yasir Shah and Zulfiqar Babar who have taken over from Ajmal and Rehman, who were not selected for the series.
England captain Alastair Cook admits the enormity of his team’s task.
“I think they have played six or seven series and haven’t lost a series. That shows what is in front of us. The great thing in Test cricket is trying to win away from home. It’s getting harder and harder,” said Cook, one of four survivors of the 2012 Tests.
Ajmal, whose controversial bowling action was questioned back in 2012, was suspended last year but after being cleared with a new style seems to have lost his wicket-taking ability, leaving his career in the balance.
“I don’t think (Ajmal’s absence) weakens or strengthens them anyway. It’s always when you play Pakistan, India or Sri Lanka spin plays a role,” Cook said.
‘A threat to any team’
Pakistan skipper Misbah-ul-Haq is confident Shah will fill the void, having led the country to series wins over Australia in Abu Dhabi last year and in Sri Lanka three months ago.
“The way Yasir is bowling he is a threat to any team,” said Misbah, who could retire at the end of the series. “But it’s not only about our spinners. It’s also about our fast bowlers and the way we bat against their spinners.”
Cook admitted Shah poses a variety of challenges.
“He has an outstanding start to his Test career,” said Cook. “Sixty wickets in ten games is a great effort and obviously Saeed was a great bowler as well.”
Pakistan’s batting will revolve around Younis Khan, Misbah, Azhar Ali and Sarfraz Ahmed who have been in great form in the last 12 months.
Younis amassed 468 runs against Australia and hit a match-winning 171 not out in Pakistan’s last Test in Sri Lanka, leaving him just 19 behind to overtake Pakistan’s highest tally of 8832 set by the great Javed Miandad.
Pakistan have never lost a series in seven attempts (winning four and drawing three) in the UAE where they have been forced to play due to security fears back home.
England’s answer to Pakistan’s spin will be feeble as leggie Adil Rashid is set to make his Test debut, six years after playing his first one-day international.
Moeen Ali is favourite to play as opener in a makeshift arrangement with additional duties of bowling off-spin, having never opened the innings even in a first-class match.
If that happens, Moeen will be Cook’s seventh partner since Andrew Strauss retired in 2012.
Joe Root and Ben Stokes — England’s leading performers with the bat — will be tested against the quality spin.
Dubai will host the second Test (October 22-26) with the final match in Sharjah (November 1-5).
Pakistan: Misbah-ul-Haq (captain), Ahmed Shehzad, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Mohammad Hafeez, Fawad Alam, Asad Shafiq, Younis Khan, Shoaib Malik, Sarfraz Ahmed, Yasir Shah, Zulfiqar Babar, Wahab Riaz, Imran Khan, Rahat Ali, Junaid Khan
England: Alastair Cook (captain), Moeen Ali, James Anderson, Samit Patel, Jonny Bairstow, Ian Bell, Stuart Broad, Jos Buttler, Steven Finn, Alex Hales, Liam Plunkett, Adil Rashid, Joe Root, Ben Stokes, James Taylor, Mark Wood
Umpires: Bruce Oxenford (AUS) and Paul Reiffel (AUS)
TV umpire: Sundaram Ravi (IND)
Match referee: Andy Pycroft (ZIM)