England v Pakistan: Azhar Mahmood selects his Pakistani players to watch

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Former Pakistani all-rounder Azhar Mahmood will be part of the BBC Test Match Special commentary team for the Test series in England.

Playing against England has always been a special feeling, full of great memories. In fact, my last test for Pakistan was a series victory over England at Old Trafford in 2001.

People often remember the great Pakistanis, like Waqar Younis, Wasim Akram and Saqlain Mushtaq.

Well, this series is an opportunity for young Pakistani players like Babar Azam, Naseem Shah and Shaheen Afridi to make a name for themselves on the international stage.

Make no mistake, Pakistan is here to win.

All the hype is about the team’s fast bowlers, but Pakistan’s hitters are the most experienced.

Babar is a phenomenal drummer. He’s always done well in limit-over cricket, but over the past 18 months he’s taken to another level in testing and now averaging over 45.

His work ethic is brilliant; the only thing he wants to do is bat, bat and bat. People compare him to Virat Kohli because of his car shooting. But he also plays the short ball well.

And he likes to play the ball late to spin the shot. If you look at quality players around the world like Kohli, Kane Williamson or Steve Smith, this is how they play.

Babar’s move to county cricket with Somerset last year, being in a different environment and sharing the dressing room with different people, has also helped him grow.

With him and Imam-ul-Haq, we have to ask them to leave the nets to let the other guys try. They love to play cricket.

When speaking of Imam, people always compare him to his uncle, the great Inzamam-ul-Haq. But Imam is doing so well on his own.

Sadly he hasn’t made his mark in the cricket test yet, but it’s a great prospect. I don’t think he’ll play in the first test, but he’s a player to watch if given a chance.

Another player to watch is goalkeeper Mohammad Rizwan. He’s scored a century in intra-team warm-up games and I think he will play in the first test. He could score a lot of points.

Watch: 16-year-old becomes youngest bowler to land Test hat-trick

As for bowlers, Pakistan is missing retired Mohammad Amir, a fantastic player that English cricket fans know well. He’s on the T20 squad but has stopped playing test cricket because he doesn’t want to harm his body, which is fair enough.

But Pakistan has enough resources in Naseem Shah and Shaheen Afridi.

At only 17 years old, Naseem is a very exciting fast bowler that everyone, rightly so, is talking about. It can play at speeds over 90 mph, has a fast bouncer, and can swing the ball back and forth. He already has a test hat-trick to his name.

It is crucial that it is well managed. At such a young age, you don’t know much about your bowling action and your workload. Pakistan will be wise to run it, especially in back-to-back tests.

I have worked with Shaheen and I can tell you that he is one of the leaders of the team. He wants to learn every time he walks in the net, asks questions and constantly wants to improve his game.

The inexperience of these two bowlers in international cricket could be an advantage, they will be fearless for these big games.

Yes, Naseem and Shaheen will make mistakes, as young players do, but they are very talented.

The only thing about this Pakistani team is that they are a solid unit off the pitch. They have no hard feelings with each other. They are good friends which is so important for any party to be successful.

They also have a coaching staff led by former internationals. Misbah-ul-Haq is the head coach and head selector. They have Younis Khan as batting coach, Waqar Younis takes care of the bowlers and Mushtaq Ahmed helps the spinners.

In the past, we normally had English speaking coaches, and for young people it is sometimes difficult to understand them. When I was helping the team, I ended up having to translate a lot of time.

Every time we come to England we get massive support from the crowd. Sadly, we won’t get this because of the Covid-19 situation – we’ll miss the crowds. But the minute the first ball is thrown, the team will be fine.

Pakistan are really motivated for this series and I predict they will win 2-1.

Azhar Mahmood was talking to Kal Sajad of BBC Sport

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