Cautious approach could prove costly for England
England have been anything but conservative over the past year, yet it is a charge that will be levelled at them if they fail to beat Pakistan at Lord's following their decision to overlook James Anderson for this first Investec Test, starting today.
Anderson has been nursing a fractured right shoulder blade these past few weeks, but looked close to full fitness during England's net session at Lord's yesterday.
The leader of England's attack was not even named in the squad for this series opener despite the fact he had been optimistic about his recovery ever since news of the injury surfaced last month.
However, the selectors and team medics were not prepared to gamble on the 33-year-old's fitness. It means instead of having the services of a man who has 454 Test wickets to his name, England will give a debut to the promising yet unproven Jake Ball at Lord's.
Alastair Cook, England's Test captain, says Anderson will be fit to return for next week's second Test at his home ground of Old Trafford.
But given Pakistan are arguably his team's toughest opponents since last summer's Ashes series, Cook and his players could feasibly find themselves 1-0 down by then.
"Yes, Jimmy's really close," admitted Cook. "But the selectors have decided it's too much of a risk to go for it. Of course there's always a temptation to take that gamble. He has recovered quite quickly and he was fairly confident but chatting to him he does understand the situation.
"When the decision is taken out of your hands it takes the pressure off him.
"He would have had to make that decision and if it had flared up he would have looked quite silly so I can understand the selectors not wanting to take a risk."
England's reluctance to throw caution to the wind for this opening Test was not only shown in their safety-first approach to Anderson but also in their decision to recall Gary Ballance rather than take a chance on Jos Buttler.
Buttler may have since been ruled out through injury, breaking a thumb batting for Lancashire, yet picking Ballance was another sign perhaps England are reluctant to stay true to the attacking instincts that have served them so well since last summer's renaissance.
It's an upward trajectory that means victory in this four-Test series will see England rise to No.2 in the world rankings behind only Australia.
They would also hold all the series trophies available to them against their current eight Test opponents. Unlike a game but limited Sri Lanka, who were beaten 2-0 in the first Test series of the summer, Pakistan will be no pushovers.
Misbah-ul-Haq and his team present formidable opposition for an England side whose untested top six containing Joe Root at No.3, James Vince at four and Ballance at five will be severely tested by the left-arm pace of Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz, not to mention Yasir Shah, the premier leg-spinner in the world right now.
An attack missing Anderson and comprising Stuart Broad, Ball, Steven Finn, Chris Woakes and Moeen Ali will also need to work hard to make inroads into a Pakistan line-up that includes the vast experience of Misbah, 42, and the 38-year-old Younis Khan.
Cook even admits Pakistan, who have won five of their past six Tests against England, albeit all in the UAE, might be considered favourites for this series.
"No disrespect to Sri Lanka but Pakistan are, on paper at least, a stronger side," he said. "There is some talk that Pakistan are favourites but that's just the way it is. Pakistan are a good side, we played against Australia when we weren't favourites and won and beat South Africa away so we are a confident bunch of players with a lot of talent.
"We will be tested but you always are. I hope we can talk about the cricket and both sides have a responsibility to do that."
Cook was referring to the return of Amir, whose last Test appearance came against England at Lord's six years ago, a match where he was embroiled in the spot-fixing scandal that saw himself, Salman Butt and Mohammad Asif all subsequently jailed and banned from the game.
Whatever the crowd reaction to Amir, England will not let the Pakistani's return obscure their focus. "You can get easily distracted, certainly in a big series," said Cook. "So you try and block out all that external stuff. We are very good when we do that."
Regardless of the result at Lord's, it seems England will have a wealth of options for the remainder of the series with not only Anderson but all-rounder Ben Stokes and Durham seamer Mark Wood all expected to be fit and available for the second Test.
England (confirmed): Cook (captain), Hales, Root, Vince, Ballance, Bairstow (wicketkeeper), Moeen Ali, Woakes, Broad, Ball, Finn.
Pakistan (probable): Mohammad Hafeez, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq (captain), Asad Shafiq, Sarfraz Ahmed (wicketkeeper), Mohammad Amir, Wahab Riaz, Yasir Shah, Rahat Ali.