Ben Stokes is an England captain keen to do things differently. It includes showing his hand early and in the case of the historic series opener against Pakistan, starting on Thursday in bustling Rawalpindi, this means a debut for Liam Livingstone and what may well feel similar for Ben Duckett after a six-year absence.
But then everything feels very new for England right now as they shuttle between hotel and ground in a convoy of armoured vehicles. The 17-year absence from Pakistan means even Jimmy Anderson is light on knowledge. The 40‑year‑old father of the house admitted he was “racking his brains” for any memories of being 12th man in 2005 that could help England to win only a third series in these parts.
Beyond the sense of delight at England’s long-awaited return and a general spirit of friendship among the two teams during their training sessions, there is plenty of local intrigue about England’s approach under Stokes and the head coach, Brendon McCullum.
The word “Bazball” regularly pops up in the various sports news bulletins in Urdu, with Babar Azam’s hosts the fourth team trying to discover the antidote.
Livingstone certainly feels a very “Bazball” pick and not just because he and Stokes grew up in Cumbria. No first-class cricket for Lancashire over the past 12 months? No problem, says his captain. Stokes has been drawn to the all-rounder’s penchant for larruping sixes, his Swiss Army knife bowling – switching between off‑spin and leggies – plus a swagger that fits the overall template.
Stokes said: “When Livi got his white pads out of the bag he did say: ‘What are these?’ The skill he has with the ball and the way he plays with the bat is very aligned with the way me and Baz [McCullum] want to see the team play. I don’t necessarily think that [lack of recent red-ball cricket] is going to be too much of a thing for him. He’s a very natural cricketer, he’s going to go out there and really express himself.”
According to Stokes it was a tight call between Livingstone and Surrey’s Will Jacks, the tie‑breaker being the former’s greater variety with the ball. That said, the captain is in fact viewing Joe Root as the second spinner to Jack Leach. The Yorkshireman has been working hard in the nets here and, as arguably the best player of spin in the world, certainly understands the battle. But this elevation still highlights a shortcoming that may not easily be overcome, especially against a class act such as Babar.
Stokes will also be without pace at his disposal initially, something Pakistan possess through Haris Rauf, on debut, and Naseem Shah, the 19-year-old Dennis Lillee clone who raged against the dying of the light in the recent T20 World Cup final. Mark Wood is striving to be fit for the second Test in Multan and, though Jamie Overton is the alternative, Stokes will instead look to be inventive with six bowling options, his own seam‑up heft offering support to the new‑ball pairing of Anderson and Ollie Robinson.
Duckett at opener is another aggressive selection and though his red-ball numbers for Notts are healthy, like Livingstone this chance owes plenty to Twenty20 prowess. Last seen in England whites during the tours of Bangladesh and India in 2016, the diminutive left-hander may have been unpicked at the stitches by Ravichandran Ashwin back then but a subsequent mastery of the sweep – both orthodox and reverse – means he could well thrive if the quicks are safely negotiated.
“Ducky showed just how good he is against spin bowling in the recent T20 series here,” Stokes said, confirming the 28-year-old has nudged out Keaton Jennings as Zak Crawley’s opening partner. “To have someone at the top like him can mess around with the fields and make it a captain’s nightmare. I’m very excited.”
Shaheen Shah Afridi’s injury‑enforced absence leaves Pakistan light on Test caps in the bowling department. But along with the pace of Haris and Naseem, a potentially tricky customer comes in the form of another debutant, Abrar Ahmed. A wrist-spinner predominantly, the 24‑year‑old mixes this with a dash of mystery from the fingertips and in the recent Quaid‑e-Azam Trophy finished top with 43 wickets from only seven matches. As ever, the nursery of tape‑ball cricket is to thank here.
Expectation comes with the territory for a country of 225 million people but this has amped up a touch after Pakistan endured a 1-0 defeat at home against Australia this year. On a succession of heartbreaking surfaces for both bowling attacks, the approach from Pat Cummins and co was to view the three‑match series as a single contest of 45 sessions. The tourists held firm during a somewhat soporific arm-wrestle until a flicker of reverse swing in Lahore broke things open.
Though Anderson is a master if the old ball starts to move for England, Stokes dismissed the relevance of Australia’s overall approach. The same went for England’s 1-0 victory in 2000, when Nasser Hussain’s men unashamedly looked to simply stay in the contest before famously pinching the third Test in the fading light of Karachi.
Asked if he had spoken to Hussain, Stokes slightly scoffed at the notion of playing for draws. And so while the National Stadium similarly plays host to the finale, one senses only the reduced daylight hours of the Pakistani winter would cause it to still be 0‑0 by then.