LAHORE:Despite facing the threat of coronavirus pandemic other than on-field challenges, Pakistan’s Test captain Azhar Ali on Saturday hoped the upcoming tour of England will progress smoothly and his boys will do their best to repeat the fine performances the country produced on their last two tours to England.
“All the players are excited and confident for the England tour. Though a tour to England has always been challenging our performances there on the last two tours [in 2016 and 2018] are encouraging and we will try to repeat those,” Azhar told reporters during an online media talk held soon after a 20-member national squad was announced for the tour.
Pakistan are scheduled to play three Tests and as many T20 Internationals on the tour during August-September.
In 2016, Pakistan led by Misbah-ul-Haq drew 2-2 in a four-Test series against England in their own backyard. And then Sarfaraz Ahmad-captained Pakistan drew a two-match rubber in England 1-1 in 2018.
Due to the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic that has affected many parts of the globe including Pakistan and England, the Pakistan squad is leaving for England on Sunday, five weeks before the start of the Test series. Azhar, a veteran of 78 Tests, and his team upon reaching England will complete a 14-day quarantine and then undergo camp training before the opening Test.
The PCB could not hold the training camp in Pakistan because of the rising number of coronavirus cases across the country during June.
Right-handed Azhar, who has been struggling to regain batting form and to prove himself a vibrant Test captain, said though England and Pakistan teams would face off in empty stadiums, their fans would be enjoying the contests on their TV sets.
“Pakistan will definitely miss the support of their own fans in England, as it is unfortunate that the matches are being held without spectators. The world sports has to operate under such circumstances for some more time. [Hopefully] it will end soon,” the 35-year-old Azhar said.
Azhar, who regained Test captaincy in place of struggling Sarfaraz Ahmad last year, has so far led Pakistan in six Test matches, losing three and winning two of them — both at home against a lowly Bangladesh and an under-strength Sri Lanka — while one Test ended as draw.
“The prevailing conditions in England will guide us in making the strategy for the matches, as weather has had a positive impact on playing conditions that vary during the months of English summer,” said the Pakistan captain.
While acknowledging that the host team had some experienced batsmen and bowlers in their ranks, Azhar said Pakistan’s pace attack was skillful and “the way youngster Shaheen Shah Afridi has improved plus Naseem Shah and Mohammad Abbas are performing, they can create problems for any team”.
The English team’s top-order batting had lacked form, he underlined.
About his Test team’s batting department, the Pakistan skipper was sounded upbeat.
“Except Jofra Archer Pakistan [batsmen] have faced all their bowlers [in Test matches] and also won matches in the presence of veteran bowlers like James Anderson and Stuart Broad plus Ben Stoke and Mark Wood.
Azhar, who has scored 5,919 Test runs at an average of 42.58, hoped that his batsmen would be able to set totals of 300-plus, to enable his promising bowlers to do their job and win matches for Pakistan.
He said Pakistan’s recent Test wins and losses were important for the team in moving forward in the direction.
“The last performances at home in the Test matches against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are encouraging for Pakistan while defeats [0-2 whitewash] at the hands of Australia in the last series will also help us to learn from the mistakes,” the skipper remarked.
To a question, Azhar said Pakistan’s past two performances in England were satisfactory when Mickey Arthur was the head coach.
He added, “Now the present coaching staff comprising the likes of Misbah [head coach], Waqar Younis [bowling coach], Younis Khan [batting coach] and Mushtaq Ahmed [spin bowling coach] holds vast experience of playing in England and this factor will definitely boost the players’ morale.”
Though the Pakistan players could not practise much due to Covid-19 pandemic, they tried their level best to keep them physically fit, said the captain.
“And now the only big task ahead of us will be to regain our skill level as I am happy seeing the players [looking] quite fit,” he said.
He said though all the players were mentally ready for the Covid-19 test, there were some worries when 10 cricketers’ test – who had no symptoms -- came positive.
To a question, Azhar said he did not expect any extra advantage to batsmen in the England series, when the bowlers would not be allowed to use saliva to shine the ball as part of safety measures against Covid-19 announced by the ICC.
“As bowlers are allowed to use sweat, the ball will be kept shining very easily, helping bowlers swing the ball as well as do reverse swing in those bowling-friendly pitches,” the Pakistan captain said.
He said batting in England had always been difficult. “However, time will tell better as this would be the first Pakistan series under the Covid-19 situation.”
Azhar hoped that both wicket-keeper Mohammad Rizwan and leg-spinner Shadab Khan would join the Pakistan squad soon after clearing the Covid-19 test.
Published in Dawn, June 28th, 2020