LAHORE           -     Pakistan cricket team captain Azhar Ali is hopeful of posing major challenge to confident England during the first Test commencing today (Wednesday) at Emirates Old Trafford, Manchester.

England were forced to practise indoors on the eve of the game due to rain, and there is more expected for the first couple of days. The weather is expected to brighten up over the weekend, though. The fast bowlers on either side in the West Indies series found plenty of swing at Old Trafford, with specialist off spinners Rakheem Cornwall and Dom Bess playing less of a role than both sides’ respective selectors might have hoped.

Head coach Misbah-ul-Haq has hinted at playing with two spinners, and it would dampen Fawad Alam’s chances of playing the first Test. It would, however, leave the lower middle order somewhat vulnerable, in spite of Shadab Khan’s competence with the bat, and with a 16-man squad, there’s plenty of flexibility to work around it.

England, on the other hand, have announced an unchanged 14-man squad, which routed West Indies in the three-match Test series. In his pre-match press conference, Root suggested one of Mark Wood or Jofra Archer would play, while Stuart Broad’s place in the playing party appears certain. The final balance of the side will be determined by Ben Stokes’ ability to bowl, having been managing a quad niggle during the West Indies series. If England err on the side of caution, then Zak Crawley will again be the fall guy, with the rest of the middle order moving up one slot.

It would be a surprise to see Pakistan veer from the expected plan of three seamers - fiery youngsters Naseem Shah and Shaheen Afridi, seamer Mohammad Abbas and spin duo Yasir Shah and Shadab Khan. Naseem (17) and Afridi (20) have a combined age lower than England’s record wicket-taker James Anderson, who turned 38 last week, but Pakistan Test captain Azhar is confident they can earn the right to be ranked alongside the country’s greatest pairings.

“They (Naseem and Shaheen) are very talented, obviously not as experienced as some of the bowling attacks that have come to England in the past, but potentially they are right up there, and they can shine against the hosts,” said the skipper. “Naseem is a young talent who came up and played Test cricket from nowhere, but I’ve been with him in the first-class team and have played a few Test matches with him now.

“He’s impressed all of us and is in our number one bowling attack. He is young and talented, and over time he will get the experience he needs. In terms of his potential, he is very threatening and hopefully he will be very good for us in this series,” Azhar added.

Azhar also backed brilliant batsman Babar Azam to underline his credentials as ‘one of the best in the world’ in England this month. Asked if the England series would see Babar join Australia’s Steve Smith and India’s Virat Kohli in the top bracket of Test batsmen, Azhar replied: “I think he is right up there already. “People are thinking and talking about it. He is just hungry for runs and I think if he keeps doing that he will be up there for quite a long time.

“His performances have improved massively in Test matches over the last year or so. Firstly, he was performing really well in white-ball cricket and people thought he was only a white-ball player but he took on that challenge and played with a lot of freedom and flair.

“As a captain I want him to play the way he wants to. Just to relax and play his game and I’m sure if he does that he will go massively up the rankings in Test matches as well. He is a very important player for us but I would like him to be free from any pressure and just enjoy his game,” Azhar added.

Talking to the reporters on Tuesday during an online session, Captain Joe Root said that England would have a ‘head start’ against Pakistan in their three-Test series following their recent victory over West Indies. “We are used to playing in this environment, having three games under our belt, and we have played some really good cricket in the last two. Naturally, having played some high-intensity, competitive Test cricket will definitely serve us well going into this series. That, and obviously playing in our home conditions, gives us a head start,” Root added.

“It’s important we don’t take that for granted as Pakistan are very talented and will be up for this series but we are playing some very good cricket. We feel we are starting to emulate our game-plan more consistently. The challenge is to keep trying to nail that as consistently as possible and to get better at doing that over and over again. We are very aware that in previous series, we have not got off to the best of starts and been 1-0 down so there is a real focus on trying to get a win early on. It is always hard work when you feel like you are behind,” said the England skipper.

PAKISTAN 16-MEMBER SQUAD

Azhar Ali (c), Babar Azam (vc), Abid Ali, Asad Shafiq, Fawad Alam, Imam, Kashif Bhatti, M Abbas, M Rizwan, Naseem Shah, Sarfraz, Shadab Khan, Shaheen Afridi, Shan Masood, Sohail Khan, Yasir Shah