Monday, 6 February 2012

5 things Pakistan v. England has taught us

5. Batting frailties are contagious

In 2011, against an Indian attack that at the time was the world number one, Bell, Morgan and Pietersen each scored centuries, with Bell and Pietersen doubling their efforts. Yet on the slow-turning UAE pitches, against a bowling attack that England arguably underestimated, the middle order didn't come within sniffing distance of a century. Bell was stumped by the spinners from the start; he struggled to get his feet forward, failed to pick Ajmal's doosra, who subsequently dismissed him four times in six innings, and his reputation as a top player of spin took a hammering. Morgan should have capitalised on his aggressive approach to the shorter format of the game, yet this didn't surface until the final innings of the third test. Appearing caught between playing his natural game and looking and playing like a test player "should play", Morgan's impressive array of shots went out of the window, instead looking unsure and nervous at the crease. Pietersen, meanwhile, not only decided to give more credence to his left-arm spin woes but expanded his repertoire to a series of nervous stays at the crease. The start of a Pietersen innings is always frenetic but until the final game, they never lasted long enough to weather the initial storm. Time after time, the middle ordered failed, be it in tentative defence or a series of bizarre shots. The middle order need to look at themselves and address what went wrong; the holes in technique that were shown in the UAE will only be exacerbated in the trip to Sri Lanka in two months time.

4. We love Tim Bresnan

It was generally agreed that a recurrence of Tim Bresnan's elbow injury was going to hurt England. Yet not many suspected just how much Bresnan's skills, particularly his batting, would be missed. England had a fantastic series with the ball, with Broad in particular proving that even the flat UAE pitches could produce pace and variable bounce. The spinners bowled admirably, but Younis and Azhar's significant stance in Pakistan's second innings took victory away from England's grasp. Bresnan could have been the breakthrough bowler; there to offer support to the seamers and to break a partnership when the spinners had tied them down but weren't getting the wicket they needed. His ability to get an old ball to move around might have given England that extra impetus when it came to taking apart a troublesome partnership. Equally, Bresnan's record with the bat may have helped England's middle order woes. Whilst it is a stretch to imagine Bresnan as an adept player of spin - it is, admittedly, difficult to imagine him picking Ajmal's doosra with any more ease than Bell - he is more than a lower order biffer. His test batting average of 45 shows that while he can hit the ball, he can adapt to the situation as and when he needs to. Morgan would likely have been the casualty should Bresnan have been fit and England decided to go with five bowlers; with Bresnan out, Morgan's replacement was touted as Bopara, whose jittery batting would have done little to ease England's troubles. Bresnan's availability may not have had a dramatic effect on the final result, but it would surely have given the beleaguered middle order the stability it was searching for.

3. Monty Panesar has still got it

It's been a long time since the image of Monty Panesar skipping in to bowl in an England shirt inspired such confidence in the spectators. Four years since he last played for England - in a test match where his blocking abilities were more memorable than his actual bowling - Panesar made a nervous start back to test cricket, before hitting his stride in the second innings and never really coming back down. Outbowling Swann at times, Panesar was someone Strauss could rely on, proved by the amount of overs he bowled on the reel. Nothing seemed to faze Panesar. Hit for a glorious six by Misbah, Panesar simply strode back to his mark, collected his thoughts and hopped back in to bowl. That sort of dedication has always been present in Panesar's game, but in games as tightly fraught as this series, his mentality has been worth its weight in gold. Taking two five wicket hauls in two games reflects how much work Panesar has put into his bowling since Swann became England's premier spin bowler. There is something incredibly likeable about Monty; wether it's in the field, another area where he has vastly improved, or striding in to bat as the last man standing, it is difficult to not feel fond of him. Now, his bowling, fielding and batting - admittedly, it was difficult to judge his batting over the course of the 18 balls that he faced - have gone beyond being likeable to downright admirable.

2. Diamonds can exist in the rough

For all the criticism surrounding England's sub-continent performances - and rightly so, in some cases - there have been some glimmers of hope from the English contingent. Prior turned out in the first and final games to give England a vague chance of redemption. His first innings in the first game pulled England out of a hole, with a mixture of watchful stroke-play and clever strike rotation. His final innings in Dubai was much of the same, forming an aggressive partnership with Broad before the latter holed out. Prior's scores in-between his two memorable innings are largely forgettable, but his technique against the spinners was more sure footed than some of his contemporaries. Broad continued an outstanding run with the ball and started to hint at his all-round prowess by forming some handy, big hitting partnerships. Many thought the difficulty of this series would be taking twenty wickets, but the bowling attack were outstanding, and were consistently, and disappointingly, let down by the batsmen. Cook's top score of 94, and a careful 49 in England's ill-fated final run chase, were impressive, but on the whole Cook appeared ungainly against the spinners. And while the temptation to wipe every English attempt at a sweep shot from memory is overwhelming, Anderson was, as Vic Marks wryly pointed on TMS, more of a batsman than some of the middle order. He's rather handy with that sweep.

1. Pakistan: a team rebuilt

To focus only on England's failures is to do a huge disservice to the efforts of this Pakistan team: a team that have regrouped over two years and have turned out three world class performances. They may have struggled with the pace the English bowlers found, but the only two batsmen in the series to reach 100 - and reach it with conviction - were from Pakistan's top order. Misbah took control of his team admirably; he knew how to use each bowler to their strengths, and once a wobble started, Pakistan were quick to enforce a full collapse. Ajmal and his doosra will be one of the most memorable stars of the series, but Rehman and Gul both contributed hugely to each Pakistan win. Ajmal and Rehman took 43 wickets between them, with Rehman in particular bowling with huge accuracy and manipulating the rough patches that developed throughout the game. Gul was just as impressive as England's fast men, more often that not pressurising the batsman into a loose pull or cut that ended their stay at the crease. And to see Pakistan's reaction as the final wicket fell spoke volumes about the way they have gone about their cricket over the last year and a half. Pakistan has moved on. This was a team performance from start to finish, from the efforts of the old guard to the enthusiasm of the young blood. Ultimately, the best team won.