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Few sporting tours have commenced under quite so sombre a cloud as that overshadowing England’s departure on Tuesday for Pakistan, a nation still reeling from a devastating earthquake. No matter how poorly his team fares, or how uncomfortable their stay, Michael Vaughan’s grasp of the bigger picture should prevent any repetition of Ian Botham’s infamous vow never to send his mother-in-law there.
Indeed, unlike the all-rounder with whom he is most often compared, Andrew Flintoff is familiar with the principles of tact. “If we can bring some pleasure to people over there who are suffering,” he has said, “then we feel we’re making a contribution.”
Vaughan and his charges may still be basking in the undimmable glory of their Ashes triumph but they know full well that this winter’s labours promise to be just as demanding, with a trip to India following after Christmas. Hence the concern over the ankle injury that has ruled Simon Jones out of the Pakistan leg.
Jones’s rapid reverse-swing bemused Australia and his mode of attack would have been impeccably suited to Pakistan’s bare pitches, where the ball’s shine vanishes with alarming speed: small wonder those architects of reverse swing, Sarfraz Nawaz, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, all wore Pakistan’s unbaggy green cap.
Finding a like-for-like replacement for Jones is proving as fruitful a quest as spotting the Loch Ness Monster, so rare is the Welshman’s fusion of speed and swing. Still, in Liam Plunkett, a slim youngster from Middlesbrough tracing Steve Harmison’s footsteps at Durham with encouraging precision, the selectors believe they have identified the spearhead for the next generation.
Marcus Trescothick and Ashley Giles are the only survivors from the England XI that won the corresponding series five years ago by becoming the first tourists ever to win a Test in Karachi, an improbable success that kick-started the revival under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher.
Intriguingly, for all that Pakistan are in the throes of reconstruction following the retirements of Wasim, Waqar and Saeed Anwar, more than half that 2000 side are likely to feature in either the three-Test series or the five one-day internationals.
Of late, merely hosting a tour has been an achievement. Since a bomb blast in Karachi sent the New Zealanders scurrying home in 2002, terrorist fears have confined Pakistan to staging just three Test series. As a partial consequence, consistency has been elusive, a weakness best symbolised by Shoaib Akhtar, the game’s fastest bowler and premier prima donna.
For Bob Woolmer, the former England opener now coaching Pakistan, getting the best out of the “Rawalpindi Express” is as daunting a task as the game can set. Then again, Woolmer has achieved one minor miracle by turning Shahid Afridi, the game’s most explosive batsman and an increasingly productive wrist spinner, into both a Test and one-day regular. He is a talent that England will ignore at their peril.