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The enigma that is Pakistan

First Test, Trent Bridge: England v Pakistan
Dates: 29-July-2 August Start time: 1100 BST
Coverage: Live Test Match Special commentary on BBC 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio 4 Long Wave and online; Live text commentary, daily reports and scorecard on BBC Sport website and mobiles; also live on Sky Sports

Mohammad Aamer
Aamer has dismissed Ricky Ponting on five occasions since his Test debut

By Pranav Soneji

Pakistan play England for the first time in a Test match since the infamous Oval encounter in 2006, when they meet on Thursday at Trent Bridge.

For the tourists, the four-Test series represents the opportunity to establish a new era under the guidance of Salman Butt and conclude a debilitating period of internal turmoil blighted by extraordinary politicking.

Butt is the fifth captain in 18 turbulent months which have left Pakistan homeless and without their two most experienced players, currently serving indefinite bans.

But as ever with Pakistan, the nadirs are interspersed with astonishing peaks - their World Twenty20 victory on English soil in 2009 coincided with the emergence of arguably the most talented teenager in cricket, Mohammad Aamer, as well as their first Test win against Australia in 15 years last week.

It's almost impossible to predict how Pakistan will perform this summer but for England, this Test series is their last chance to assess their prospects ahead of the Ashes this winter.

THE TURMOIL

If the off-field chronicles of Pakistani cricket were ever turned into a stage play, it would make Macbeth look like an episode of the Teletubbies.

Betrayal, deceit, treachery and conceit were just some of the words used to describe the most turbulent of 12 months for a country already on its knees suffering the effects of its extremely unstable security situation.

Pakistan have been forced to use England as their foster home because no international team will tour the country following the deadly terrorist attacks on Sri Lanka's cricketers in Lahore last year.

Mohammad Yousuf
Yousuf announced his retirement from cricket shortly after his ban

But as if the crippling effects of a cricket embargo were not debilitating enough, the lowest nadir in the country's 58-year Test history was brewing during a disastrous tour to Australia at the end of 2009.

After losing all three Test matches, five one-day internationals and a Twenty20 match, the Pakistan Cricket Board concluded former captains Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan were responsible for "in-fighting which…brought down the whole team", slapping both men with indefinite suspensions in March.

As if that wasn't enough, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Shoaib Malik were each given one-year bans while Shahid Afridi, Kamran and Umar Akmal were fined and placed on six-month probations following an inquiry to determine the extent of the mutiny to undermine Yousuf's captaincy.

Yet bizarrely, and despite the heavy fine and probation, Twenty20 captain Afridi was then appointed to take over the Test duties - even though he last played five-day cricket in 2006.

But more poignantly, Pakistan lost four of their most experienced players - Younus and Yousuf have over 13,000 Test runs between them, with the latter announcing his retirement from cricket shortly after the ban.

And with a 'home' two-Test series against Australia, a team who had beaten Pakistan in 12 successive five-day matches, to contest on neutral soil, their prospects looked bleak.

THE RECOVERY

Through the constant back-stabbing and politicking, new coach Waqar Younis, Pakistan's 14th in 15 years following the sacking of Intikhab Alam in March, promised to unite a deeply divided team by playing aggressive cricket.

That's not the easiest pledge to execute in the absence of your most experienced players, but Pakistan have a long history of throwing in raw talent not long out of short trousers.

And every so often they unearth a priceless gem such as Mohammad Aamer.

It's practically impossible not to admire the fleet-footed run-up, whip-like left-arm and discernable movement on and off the pitch and not scream "Wasim Akram".

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The 18-year-old has 32 Test wickets in 10 Tests, including the scalp of Australia captain Ricky Ponting on five occasions.

But according to Wasim, Pakistan's record wicket-taker with 414 wickets, Aamer "is definitely a much cleverer bowler at his age than I was", which should send shivers down the spines of England's top order.

Aamer is integral to Pakistan's future aspirations, along with Salman Butt, appointed captain less than 24 hours after Afridi announced his retirement from Test cricket following Pakistan's 150-run defeat by Australia at Lord's earlier this month.

The elegant but frustratingly inconsistent opening batsman became the country's sixth captain in 18 months but instantly became a hero when he broke Pakistan's 15-year winless run against Australia in the second Test at Headingley last week.

A 100% record is unlikely to last - but if overhead conditions are anything like they were on the first day in Leeds at Trent Bridge, then England's batsmen are in serious danger.

THE STRENGTHS

Trent Bridge is the type of ground swing bowlers dream about - and Pakistan are blessed with three of the most gifted exponents in world cricket.

Aamer and Mohammad Asif, the closest bowler to Glenn McGrath around, tore through Australia's first-innings top order at Headingley with an exhibition of movement in the air and off the pitch, while Umar Gul can cause havoc reverse swinging the older ball.

The triumvirate are brilliantly supported by the guile of leg-spinner Danish Kaneria, the most experienced of the bowling quartet with 260 Test wickets in 60 matches.

Each bowler offers a different examination - Aamer's pace, angle and late inswing to the right-handers, Asif's leg-cutters, Gul's late movement and Kaneria's deceptive variety.

And if conditions are in their favour, England's top order will struggle to contain the best bowling unit in world cricket.

THE WEAKNESSES

Unfortunately for Pakistan fans, the batting department remains frustratingly inconsistent. Flashes of brilliance are too often interspersed by poor shot selection or indiscipline when running between the wickets.

The absence of Yousuf and Younus has left a chasm in the middle order, with little option but to give untested Azhar Ali and Umar Amin their Test debuts against Australia at Lord's.

Umar Akmal hits out over the top
Umar Akmal has all the shots - but his temperament remains a weakness

Neither looked out of place at the highest level, but when you consider openers Butt and Farhat have Test averages of 32.61 and 33.98 respectively, Pakistan's top four is as vulnerable as it is talented.

However, the dashing Umar Akmal, younger brother of wicketkeeper Kamran, has the ability to win matches single-handedly with his brash and often barbaric batting, although his reluctance to play the match situation will inevitably frustrate and enthral in equal measure.

Pakistan's fielding has the tendency to look distinctly village at times, while Akmal's wicketkeeping is either flawless or useless.

Standards markedly improved during the Australia series in England, with most slip catches sticking, but the outfielding remains inconsistent and behind the likes of Australia, South Africa and England.



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FROM OTHER SPORT SITES
Yahoo! UK and Ireland Collingwood ready for Pakistan bowlers - 5 hrs ago
Daily Express Pulling fast on England - 9 hrs ago
Telegraph England prepared to go with the swing - 14 hrs ago
Yorkshire Post England out to tame Pakistan pace - 14 hrs ago
Reuters UK Pakistan would favour England as second home, says Butt - 23 hrs ago


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