Series Score

After a brilliant three-match Test series against West Indies, England are now preparing to embark on another triple-header against a talented, exciting Pakistan side.

After the Southampton debacle, the England hierarchy will have been delighted with the two victories in Manchester. The seam bowling attack looks as deadly as ever, with an incredible array of options from which to choose, while the batting has also rapidly improved.

Rory Burns, Dom Sibley and Ollie Pope all look at home at Test level, while Ben Stokes is in the form of his life.

The two major question marks hang over the spinning option and Jos Buttler. Dom Bess was under-bowled against the Windies—partly due to the potency of the England quicks—while Buttler’s batting still isn’t quite clicking, although he kept wicket very well.

As for the visitors, they have a squad packed with some serious talent. Babar Azam is one of the best players in the world, and is Pakistan’s danger man with the bat, while skipper Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq are quality, experienced campaigners.

One man England won’t know too much about is opener Abid Ali, who has scored two centuries in his first three Test matches, although we’ll see what he’s really made of as he prepares to do battle with Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson.

There’s also plenty to be excited about amongst the Pakistani bowlers. Mohammad Abbas, with an average of 20.76 in Test cricket is a superb operator, while leg-spinner Yasir Shah, with 213 wickets in just 39 Tests, has been well-acquainted with England already. He’s perhaps not playing at the level we saw a few years ago, but he’s still a major threat.

However, the two men I’m most looking forward to watching are two quickies: left-armer Shaheen Afridi, who burst onto the scene during the 2019 World Cup, and 17-year-old Naseem Shah.

Pakistan have a wealth of experience with the bat, as well as youthful exuberance (and pace) with the ball, which should make this a very exciting series.

We saw England’s fallibility with the bat at the Ageas Bowl against West Indies, and while the gaps are slowly being plugged in the batting order, this Pakistan attack has the capability to inflict some serious pain on England.

Furthermore, should Babar in particular find himself in the runs, the tourists have a great chance in this series.

Pakistan have managed to draw their last two series’ in England, and for me, the main battle will be how their top order deal with the England seam attack. If Babar, Shafiq and Haris Sohail come in with a platform set, England could be in a spot of bother.

While this’ll likely be a tougher series than the West Indies encounter, England are still formidable on home soil, and a closely-fought 2-1 home win at a massive 6/1 looks like a great option, particularly considering only four of England’s last 46 Test matches have ended in draws.

2-1 England - 1pt @ 6/1

Top England Batsman

While, up until the last Test match, he somewhat underwhelmed with the bat, I’m going back in on Ollie Pope at a massive 7/1 in this market.

I backed him at 5s in the West Indies series, and while Joe Root’s inclusion at the top of the market has even prices balloon elsewhere, I do think he should be taken on.

Pope’s beautifully made 91 in the third Test is hopefully a sign that he has rediscovered his rhythm, and I don’t believe a man with this much talent (and a First Class average of 57!), should be as long as 7/1 to top score for England in the series.

While he needs to score runs of his own, we need to look at who his main threats are in this market.

Root and Ben Stokes are the obvious candidates here. Root averages just a smidgen over 40 with the bat since the start of 2018, and while this is still a respectable return, I’m certainly not going to be backing him at 5/2 here.

As for Stokes, while he’s been batting out of his skin for a long while now, his record against Pakistan is a slight cause for concern, averaging just 18.78 in nine innings – by some distance his worst record against any opponent. He’s a better player now, but with this in mind I’d still sooner back Pope at 7s than Stokes at 3s.

Openers Rory Burns and Dom Sibley both impressed in the West Indies series, and while you can make a case for either ending this tussle with Pakistan as the leading English run scorer, I’m still not to be budged from Pope.

While West Indies bowled with control, it’ll be interesting to see how the openers deal with Pakistan’s additional pace. Pat Cummins targeted Burns with short stuff during The Ashes, claiming his wicket a number of times in the process.

Sibley has a good number of runs behind him and credit in the bank, but as I’ve mentioned, taking the bigger price on the prodigiously talented Pope is still an ideal play here.

Pope - 1pt @ 7/1

Top Pakistan Batsman

He may be as short as 5/2 in this market, but I have absolutely no problems with strongly backing Babar Azam here.

It’s only a matter of time before the 25-year-old is consistently spoken about in the Smith/Kohli/Williamson bracket, and this is a great opportunity for him to reaffirm his credentials as one of the best batsmen in the world.

Babar has only faced England once in his Test career, scoring 68* in his sole innings, but averaged 56 and 68.44 with the bat in 2018 and 2019 respectively, while his only innings in 2020 thus far yielded 143 runs. He’s simply outstanding.

His main competition in this market is skipper Azhar Ali, who has a good Test average of 42.58 and plenty of big game experience. However, 2019 was his worst year with the bat since 2013, scoring 239 runs at just 21.73. A modest average of just 31.96 against England is also nothing special.

I’m also going to steer clear of Pakistan’s two likely openers: Abid Ali and Shan Masood. The former, while riding a crest of a wave thanks to his outstanding start to life as a Test cricketer, will never have come up against new ball bowlers of Broad and Anderson’s quality before, particularly in English conditions, and this uncertainty over how he’ll cope isn’t enough to tempt me to back him.

As for Masood, he averages just 16.13 against England, passing 50 just once in eight innings.

The only other challenger to Babar who may be worth a look is Asad Shafiq, who is priced at a pretty generous 11/2.

An average of 40.86 against England is solid enough, and he’s passed 50 in 6 of his last 10 Test innings, so he does feel a little overpriced, particularly considering he’s played 74 Tests with 12 centuries under his belt.  

However, while you can make small cases for plenty of others, Babar is overwhelmingly Pakistan’s best batsman, and snapping him up at 5/2 in this market is still the best play.  

Babar Azam - 2pts @ 29/10

Top Pakistan Bowler

Pakistan’s bowling attack really is very exciting, and this is a market containing a number of big players.

While the usual rotation considerations have to be given to Pakistan’s bowlers, I’m going to work on the basis that their attack will primarily consist of Mohammad Abbas, Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah and Yasir Shah, with Haris Sohail a handy part-time option.

17-year-old Naseem Shah is a very exciting prospect, and with 13 wickets in his opening four Tests, including a 5fer against Sri Lanka and hat-trick against Bangladesh—making him the youngest ever player to do take one in Tests—he’s someone to keep a close eye on.

Yasir Shah is also a prolific wicket-taker who has taken 34 English scalps, but on these shores he’s taken wickets at 40.74 apiece, with a hefty strike rate of 75.16.

2019 was also Yasir’s worst year to date by some distance, taking just 6 wickets at 101.33 apiece, showing clear evidence that he’s perhaps not the bowler he once was.

In deciding my tip for this market, however, it came down to a straight shootout between Shaheen and Abbas.

Abbas is a remarkable bowler who averages just 20.76 with the ball in Test cricket. He can bowl with unerring control and is a genuine wicket taker as well.

Shaheen, on the other hand, will rely a little more on his pace and left-arm angle to trouble England’s batsmen – with right-handers Sibley, Root, Pope, Buttler and Zak Crawley (should be play) all susceptible to that in-swinger, making them LBW candidates.  

After much consideration, I’m leaning towards Shaheen Afridi to be Pakistan’s top bowler. There’s no doubt English conditions will suit Abbas, but the numbers for 2019 suggest Shaheen is only getting better and better.

Shaheen’s bowling average of 29 in 2019, coupled with a strike rate of 54.35, dwarfs Abbas’ 44.64 and 92.18 respectively during the same period of time. Of course, location played a large role in this disparity, but Shaheen took six more wickets despite bowling 15 fewer overs, and his improvement over time looks exponential.

I do expect Abbas to be consistent and pick up regular wickets, but Shaheen’s pace, and left-arm angle, could cause some serious carnage, and for this reason he’s going to be the man I back.

Let’s get on with the cricket!

Shaheen Afridi - 1pt @ 10/3

40/1 RAB: England Win Series 2-1, Babar Top Pakistan Batsman, Shaheen Top Pakistan Bowler

40/1 RAB: England Win Series 2-1, Babar Top Pakistan Batsman, Shaheen Top Pakistan Bowler - 1pt @ 40/1