For the first time in six attempts, England have won the series-opener in Test cricket. And despite being much the better side for most of last week’s first Test at Old Trafford, Pakistan tasted a chastening defeat that could have (and would have) impacted morale.

Despite a second-innings batting collapse, Pakistan were still favourites to win when they reduced England to 117/5 in pursuit of a target of 277. Only twice before had a target of 200-plus been chased down successfully in Old Trafford’s history.

But a sixth-wicket partnership of 139 between Chris Woakes (84 not out) and Jos Buttler (75) turned the tide as England went 1-0 up in a three-match series on Saturday.

Normally, under those circumstances, one could say — in their home conditions — England can ride the momentum and close out the series win rather comfortably.

But, given the build-up to the second match of the three-Test series, Pakistan must sense renewed hope to stay alive in this series.

A look at the talking points ahead of a crucial encounter in Southampton that starts on Thursday:

Ben Stokes’ absence

That the consensus seems to be that Pakistan are in with a shout of levelling the series (or beyond) is largely down to the fact that England will play their first match of the summer without Ben Stokes in their ranks. Since England won with more than a day to spare in Manchester, it had been announced that star all-rounder Stokes will miss the rest of the series as a result of travelling to New Zealand for family reasons.

‘But cricket is a team game and Stokes did not do much with the bat in the first Test — so why the fuss?’, might one yell someone from the back.

Indeed so, but a player like Stokes is such a presence on the cricket field that even if he was struggling for form, he would be missed. But instead, Stokes just had one bad Test match with the bat where he got two near-unplayable deliveries. And despite not being fully fit (and England having four other frontline pacers) he was called upon to bowl, and as always, provided a crucial breakthrough in the second innings.

Simply put, England will be missing the services of the most complete cricketer in the world right now and that’s a shot in the arm for Pakistan, no two ways about it.

The absence of Stokes leaves captain Joe Root with a significant selection headache.

A quad injury meant that the end of England’s 2-1 series win over the West Indies last month – a campaign that marked international cricket’s return from the coronavirus lockdown – and the first Test against Pakistan saw vice-captain Stokes effectively deployed as a specialist batsman. His bowling cameo apart, England might still want to replace only the batting he brought to the table, tough as that may be.

The obvious move for England would be to recall batsman Zak Crawley, who has missed out on the last two matches while an extra bowler has been deployed because of Stokes’ injury problems.

Buttler underlined his skill in a run-chase last week but the wicketkeeper, by his own admission, had a poor match with the gloves.

England do have the option to recall Ben Foakes, widely regarded as a better keeper, and play Buttler as a specialist batsman. But Root appeared wary of that suggestion when he praised fellow World Cup winner Buttler’s innings by saying: “I think it will provide him with a huge amount of confidence in all aspects of his game and he should take that forward for the rest of the series.”

Either way, England will hope that whoever their choice to replace Stokes is, can hold up against a potentially fired up Pakistan attack.

England vs Pakistan in Tests since 2000

Series/Tournament Season Winner Margin
England in Pakistan Test Series 2000/01 England 1-0 (3)
Pakistan in England Test Series 2001 drawn 1-1 (2)
England in Pakistan Test Series 2005/06 Pakistan 2-0 (3)
Pakistan in England Test Series 2006 England 3-0 (4)
Pakistan in England Test Series 2010 England 3-1 (4)
Pakistan v England Test Series (in United Arab Emirates) 2011/12 Pakistan 3-0 (3)
Pakistan v England Test Series (in United Arab Emirates) 2015/16 Pakistan 2-0 (3)
Pakistan in England Test Series 2016 drawn 2-2 (4)
Pakistan in England Test Series 2018 drawn 1-1 (2)
Pakistan in England Test Series (Ongoing) 2020 England lead 1-0

Captains’ crisis

Among many questions facing Pakistan, the pressure on their captain seems the most worrying.

Azhar Ali, criticised for his tactics during Buttler and Woakes’ decisive stand, has made just one fifty in 10 innings since becoming skipper in November. His numbers since the start of 2019 would have been enough to drop a batsman on any self-respecting Test side. For Pakistan, that does not seem to be an option yet given the lack of good options (for both batting and captaincy per seniority).

The man himself denied captaincy was affecting his batting.

“When I bat, I’m not thinking about the captaincy, whether or not I’m out of form. And when I’m captain, I don’t think about my batting at all.”

Tough as that sounds, he has a task on his hands to get some runs under his belt. Leading by example might be the best option he has at the moment.

Azhar Ali's poor recent form

Mat Inns Runs HS Ave 100 50
Overall 78 147 5919 302* 42.58 16 31
Since Jan 2018 8 14 291 118 20.78 1 0

Root himself could do with a big score having managed just one Test hundred in 18 months.

England are in the middle of a sequence of six Tests in seven weeks, a gruelling schedule that has seen them adopt a policy of rotating their quicks. But the batsmen have all been picked on the basis of their availability.

While clearly his form is not as big a concern as his counterpart’s, and in Stokes’ absence, the responsibility to play a match-defining knock increases on Root.

Joe Root's search for a big score

Mat Inns Runs HS Ave 100 50
Overall 95 175 7785 254 48.05 17 49
Since Jan 2019 18 34 1277 226 38.69 2 8

Pakistan’s bowling combination

One of the more obvious reasons for West Indies’ series defeat was the workload on their bowlers, who were barely rotated and faded away after a bright start in Southampton. That will be on Pakistan’s mind, too.

Should Pakistan have concerns about the fitness of their pace trio of Mohammad Abbas, Shaheen Afridi and Naseem Shah, they could bring in another quick such as Sohail Khan.

Pakistan played two leg-spinners at Old Trafford, with Shadab Khan backing up Yasir Shah, but they could now deploy a fourth seamer if they feel the Ageas Bowl pitch won’t take as much turn. As such, Shadab was (perhaps, criminally) underutilised in Manchester.

Going by the early indications, however, Pakistan might not be tinkering with their attack too much.

“We haven’t decided who we’re going to play at the moment, but we haven’t played any cricket for a long period of time,” assistant coach and former captain Waqar Younis said on Wednesday.

“It’s been five months since we last played a Test. I don’t think tiredness is an issue with the team. Yes, it’s very hot here, but it’s going to cool down in the next few days, and I’m sure they’ve got plenty of gas left the tank to tackle this Test and we’ll see how it goes after.”

Pakistan’s mental strength

Despite looking to be on course to win the Test in Manchester, Pakistan threw away a golden chance to gain the upper hand. Already dealing with the mental challenge of being stuck in the bio-secure bubble — something that Jason Holder pointed out after West Indies’ series loss — such a defeat could prove difficult to bounce back from. Especially considering the lack of experience of playing in England for most of the squad.

While Pakistan enjoy a good recent record in England, those efforts came after a good start to the series. It is, therefore, imperative that coach Misbah-ul-haq and under-pressure captain Azhar Ali find out a way, first and foremost, to ensure the visitors are mentally ready for the battle in Southampton.

Easier said than done.

Misbah insisted his side could recover from an agonising loss as they try to avoid a defeat that will condemn them to a first series defeat by England in a decade.

“We need to improve 10 to 15% and deal with pressure situations a little better but we shouldn’t be mentally down,” he said, with Pakistan denied the usual vocal support they enjoy in England as the pandemic has turned this campaign into a behind closed doors series.

The broadcasters pointed their camera to the one man who was playing the dhol in Pakistan’s colours outside Old Trafford on the fourth day, without seemingly a worry in the world. Azhar and Co would do well to channel some of that energy.

With AFP inputs