England plan to hit ground running ahead of three-Test series with Pakistan
England return to the office here after their extended break determined to recreate the intensity in their warm-up games that served them so well in Australia last year.
Long gone are the days of 12 and 13-a-side practice games and England went into Saturday's opener to their tour of the United Arab Emirates aiming 'to hit the ground running' in the build-up to the three-Test series against Pakistan.
There is no shortage of motivation among the opposition, either. Ireland's William Porterfield, the man who led his country to their famous World Cup win over England, captains an ICC Associate XI made up of some of the best players from outside the Test arena.
Final preparations: Captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower chat at the ICC Cricket Academy in Dubai
England begin what will be one of their busiest years at the impressive ICC academy ground, fresh from a two-month break unprecedented in modern international cricket and now needing to conquer Asian conditions in their last great challenge.
They decided to treat their three warm-up games ahead of the Ashes as a mini-series and won two of them, only being denied a clean sweep by rain in Adelaide.
Now they are hoping to find the same formula in their two three-day matches here ahead of the first Test on January 17.
Andrew Strauss has been delighted with his side's preparation even though Tim Bresnan has yet to bowl a ball in anger on tour after his elbow operation and Chris Tremlett has an eye infection which could consign him to the sidelines today alongside Bresnan.
Welcome return: Graham Onions in bowling action while Strauss practices on the bowling machine (below)
'The facilities here are fantastic and have allowed us to get into the swing of things pretty quickly,' said Strauss. 'There has been a lot of exuberance and keenness to get playing again. We believe in playing proper games and it's important to get used to conditions here quickly.'
The quality of the opposition in games like these can be an issue, which is why the world governing body's initiative in bringing this team together should be applauded.
Porterfield, who considers it 'an opportunity to take a big scalp', is joined by his countrymen Paul Stirling, Middlesex's aggressive batsman, and George Dockrell, the promising left-arm spinner.
Giant Warwickshire fast bowler Boyd Rankin also plays for the ICC XI before leaving for Bangladesh where he will join the England Lions.
'He is in our system, so to speak, and this is his opportunity to show what he can do,' said Strauss.
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Rankin may be one of the better seam bowlers in county cricket but he remains a long way down the England pecking order because of the strength in depth of their fast bowling ranks, as epitomised by Middlesex seamer Steven Finn.
Finn was expected to play in Bresnan's absence – Strauss hopes the Yorkshireman will be fit for the second game on Wednesday – and can stake a claim for a Test return.
'He looks like he's put on a yard or so of pace and is challenging the guys in the Test team pretty hard now,' said Strauss. 'Pace gives you an extra element but without control it's not that useful and that's another area Steven's improved on.'