Saturday 28 January 2012

Rehman gives England the Trott's...

Whilst Jonathan Trott was experiencing plenty of uncomfortable off field troubles of his own in Abu Dhabi this afternoon, his fellow England batsmen were providing a similarly gut wrenching performance to a horror struck audience back home, only this time in a cricketing sense.

After the continual successes of the past two years, England supporters could perhaps have been forgiven for believing that a run chase of 145 was well within their achievable means. England of old would have made hard work of such an insignificant total, leaving nails chewed to the bone by the time all was said and done, but not this England; someone always steps up to the plate.

Alas, not in Asia, it would seem. Ghosts of Multan in 2005 returned to haunt Andy Flower’s men, and it was painfully evident that England’s batsmen are yet to conquer this particular fear. 198 was the fourth innings target set in Multan, only for England to be bowled out for 175. Danish Kaneria did the damage then, taking 4-62 as England crumbled in Pakistan’s backyard, and it was the spinners that left England humiliated once more here in Abu Dhabi as they crashed to an abysmal 72 all out.

There are two striking similarities between the debacle of 2005 and the humbling in Abu Dhabi; both defeats were to Pakistan, and both were in a series following England beating the then number one ranked side in the world, Australia and India respectively. After wins of such enormity where runs have come at ease, the travails of England’s batsmen in sub-continental conditions are highly unlikely to be confidence related, one would think.

Abdur Rehman decimated England with 6-25
Of course, there is always pressure involved with a run chase; particularly those targets that you are expected to comfortably reach. An early wicket, as was the case when Mohammad Hafeez removed Alastair Cook caught and bowled with England on just 21, only serves to increase the anxiety.

In this instance, though, England’s batsmen did not look panicked or outwardly ruffled. England’s problems, as has been the case in each of the two Tests played thus far in this three Test series, stemmed from the lack of technique and absence of intent from each and every one of their top order batsmen.

An infuriating tendency to play back to almost every ball delivered by Pakistan’s trio of spinners, coupled with a complete lack of willingness to utilise their footwork to nullify the purchase gained from the surface, left England’s batsmen prodding and poking at ball after ball from deep within their crease, simultaneously allowing the spinners of Pakistan to build pressure whilst adding very few runs to the total.

Ian Bell, in at number three as a result of Jonathan Trott’s unfortunate ailment, was rather unlucky; defending an Ajmal delivery down in to the pitch, only to see it spin back through his legs and dislodge a bail from the stumps. Captain Andrew Strauss fought hard, struggling to an agonising 32 from 100 balls before being put out of his misery by Abdur Rehman, but the stagnant nature of his innings summed up just how insipid a batting effort this was from the team who prior to this series had no less than four batsmen sitting inside the ICC top ten rankings.

Despite the ghastly showing from England’s batsmen, full credit must go to the bowlers of Pakistan. Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal in particular were truly outstanding, giving the batsmen very little to hit without taking significant risk. Rehman exploited the appreciable turn on offer to cause nightmares for the right handed batsmen as he saw many a delivery played at and missed, but it was against the left handers that he had considerable success. Pitching in the rough and spinning back in to the left handers, Rehman dismissed Andrew Strauss leg before wicket and rearranged the stumps of both Eoin Morgan and Stuart Broad, before picking up the final wicket courtesy of a top edged slog from James Anderson. Final innings figures of 6-25 were just reward for a magnificent spell.

Ajmal, as is his wont, again had England tied up in knots with subtle changes in pace and clever use of the dreaded doosra; a delivery that very few England batsmen are showing even the faintest sign of reading. Playing constantly off the back foot, England’s batsmen were nothing more than sitting ducks waiting to be picked off by these unerringly accurate marksmen.

Pakistan’s captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, is the antithesis of his countries recent cricketing history. Calm, composed and a strong believer in consistency of selection, he has almost single-handedly reformed Test cricket for this great cricketing nation. Gone are the political controversies, departed is the inner turmoil inside the Pakistan dressing room, and no more are the brainless shots that cost many a Pakistan batsman his wicket that were so evident during their last tour of England. Under Misbah, Pakistan are once more a force to be reckoned with on the international scene, and Test cricket can only prosper as a result.   

If confidence amongst England’s batsmen was high coming in to this series, it will have all but deserted them by now. A captain that has scored just one century in almost two and a half years, and a middle order that cannot buy a run out here in the United Arab Emirates will cause plenty of thinking to be done ahead of England’s next tour to Sri Lanka where similar conditions are likely to be experienced. Calls for widespread change are of course premature after just two poor Test matches, but Eoin Morgan is one batsman that will be spending plenty of time looking over his shoulder prior to the dead rubber third Test at Dubai next week. After failing to consistently impress even as England crushed India last year, Morgan’s abject failures in this series will likely see him replaced by Ravi Bopara at number six in the England line-up.

At 2-0 down, the third and final Test at Dubai has now become something of a salvage mission for England’s batsmen; a chance to regain a measure of pride and faith in their own ability to play successful cricket in these conditions. You have to feel for England’s bowlers, Stuart Broad and Monty Panesar in particular, who have taken to the task of bowling on difficult pitches with aplomb only to be let down by their batting counterparts. That is one positive to take from this otherwise disappointing series, and a source of hope for their tour of Sri Lanka, at least.

England are still number one, just, and a big performance is needed in Dubai if they wish to persuade anyone that they’re still worthy of such a title. They say a win in Asia is the benchmark of a great side, but going on the evidence presented across the last two weeks we may just have to be a little less lavish in our praise for the time being.

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