Strauss has a chance to draw a line in the desert sand against Pakistan
It is time to hold our breath. Time to hope England’s first Test series of a huge year will be remembered as a closely-fought contest in conditions that will fully examine their right to be considered the world’s best team.
Not like the last time they played Pakistan. Last time still dominates thoughts, not least because three Pakistan cricketers are still in prison while their colleagues get ready for their first game against England since that tainted summer of 2010.
The bad feeling lingers despite every well-rehearsed comment from both sides about it being time to move on. So serene has England’s build-up been, so surreal is the venue for this Pakistan ‘home’ series, that it is easy to forget the feeling of disbelief that engulfed Lord’s on that miserable Sunday when the News of the World shocked the cricketing world.
Leading the way: Captain Andrew Strauss arrives for nets practice on Sunday
The Dubai International Stadium is an impressive bowl, complete with wickets made from Pakistani soil, but it cannot replicate Lahore or Karachi.
And the stadium that Pakistan reluctantly call home because of the ongoing problems in their country will be sparsely populated for Tuesday’s first Test, even though the Pakistani community is one of the biggest in the United Arab Emirates.
Times are hard and work has to be done, with visits to the cricket reserved for their day off on Friday or, more likely, the one-day series.
It is unlikely that the sterile atmosphere will affect the intensity of the cricket.
It would be extraordinary if these three Tests pass off without incident. Not least if Wahab Riaz, picked for this series despite being named in the spot-fixing court case, makes an appearance. The teams have been staying in the same hotel here, but it is so huge that the chances of Wahab bumping into Jonathan Trott, whom he clashed with physically at the height of the 2010 ill-feeling, have been remote.
We can only take the word of Pakistan
captain Misbah-ul-Haq, who has done an impressive rebuilding job after
succeeding the disgraced Salman Butt, that his team are now clean.
On the front foot: Jimmy Anderson takes a catch in the slips during a nets session
How can we think otherwise when the alternative is too awful to ponder
The ‘hosts’ are unbeaten in Tests since the nadir of their visit to England and, in Saeed Ajmal, have one of the most potent bowlers in the world.
Misbah is a calm character and, at 37, the sort of elder statesman Pakistan needed in their time of crisis.
Under him, pragmatism has replaced the volatile, unpredictable but often brilliant brand of cricket that we have seen from generations of Pakistan teams.
That is a legitimate sacrifice if it means we can truly believe in what we will be watching over the next three weeks.
Tim Bresnan’s absence has virtually ended any chance of England finding room for Monty Panesar. Bresnan could have batted at seven behind Matt Prior with a batsman sacrificed to make room for the second spinner.
Brains trust: Strauss with vice-captain Alastair Cook
But it is unlikely England will abandon their favoured four-bowler policy and ask Stuart Broad to bat at seven.
A four-man attack of two seamers and two spinners would not appeal to the conservative natures of Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss.
Broad assures us in his Sportsmail column that he will be fine despite taking a nasty blow on his left ankle on Sunday, while Chris Tremlett was able to bowl without his sunglasses and remains favourite to step in for the injured Bresnan. Any doubts after his serious eye infection, and Steven Finn will play.
Strauss’s team know they have to start winning consistently in Asia if they are to cement their place in history, and this is not a bad way to start a calendar year which will also feature Test visits to Sri Lanka and India.
There may not be the fanfare of last winter’s Ashes but this represents a tough challenge for Strauss.
I believe he will rise to it, and England will win an attritional series 1-0.