England need to find some middle ground to stop their drop from the top
Last week, this column gave England the benefit of the doubt. Dubai, the team could argue, was an aberration; don’t judge us just yet.
But Saturday in Abu Dhabi settled the matter: too many of them are clueless against top-class spin.
Where from here England coach Andy Flower gives instruction to his players during nets on Tuesday
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It hardly needs an armchair critic to make this point, because Andy Flower has since said more or less the same: ‘We weren’t good enough to deal with their spinners, we weren’t skilful enough and we didn’t deal with the pressure well enough. And I think we have to face up to those facts.’
The last part of that quote may just be the most revealing. When England propped and cocked their way to inevitable World Cup embarrassment in Asia last year, they were forgiven because they had just won the Ashes.
And when they lost 5-0 in India in October, well, it was only one-day cricket wasn’t it And anyway, winning the Tests 4-0 in the summer was what really mattered, no
That contained more than a grain of truth, except that the Indian whitewash had already set Flower thinking: batsmen honed in English conditions have no instinctive grasp of how to play spin, no innate sense of the importance of using your feet or relaxing your wrists or rotating the strike. It’s a cultural thing, and it has a flipside: just ask India.
Quotes emanating from the Indian camp, however, suggest a chronic form of denial over successive 4-0 away defeats. Memo to Virender Sehwag: to cite a 2-0 home win, one of them by a single wicket, over a rabble of an Australian side 15 months ago is to scrape whatever comes below the barrel.
Flower’s addendum at least hints at honesty. The last time England lost all 10 for 51 – in Jamaica in February 2009 – it was agreed that this very quality could be the only policy. And so it must be again.
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The way of the Test world right now
seems to be thus: whichever side manages its weaknesses the best will
have a decent crack at topping the rankings.
Among the top six, few teams now beat
each other away from home in conditions which are alien – and by that
I’m thinking largely of an Asian/non-Asian split. (Australia won in Sri
Lanka last year, it’s true; but without Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka
almost stand outside this equation.)
As it happens, I’d still back England to beat Australia in England because of their flaky top three, ageing middle order, erratic keeper and injury-prone seam attack; but perhaps no longer in Australia.
And it’s worth stating again that, despite the anger which apparently exists in the more vocal parts of the web about the accuracy of the ICC rankings, no other team has yet done enough to displace England. I realise plenty of people will disagree, but this is not England’s fault. Get over it.
But in the absence of a genuinely great side among the current crop of Test teams, it will be the greatest pragmatists who rise to the top. ( are in Sri Lanka and India. Neither side possesses a duo like Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman, but England will struggle in both if the middle ground remains elusive.
Key man: England must work out how to stop spin star Saeed Ajmal
England’s immediate problem, other than the prospect of being whitewashed in their first Test series since they topped the rankings, is that four of their top six resemble walking wickets.
In the cases of Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen, who in 2011 came first and fourth in the world Test averages, the blip ought to be temporary. But Strauss is in danger of creating a problem ahead of the 2013 Ashes, while Eoin Morgan has failed to live up to his billing as England’s best player of spin.
As for Pakistan, well, who would have thought it The way they gave themselves a chance of winning a Test match which, for large chunks, they were losing, is to the credit of Misbah-ul-Haq. Quite simply, they hung in there. Under Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher, England adopted the same approach in Asia – it brought them successive series wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
Now Misbah has dared to subvert stereotype. The evidence was there for all to see in the fifth-wicket stand of 88 in 42 overs between Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, a masterpiece in self-denial that was all the more impressive because both men are only 26 (Shafiq celebrated his birthday on the day Pakistan claimed the series).
Twenty-six-year-old Pakistanis aren’t supposed to do masterpieces in self-denial. Forget 72 all out. This was Abu Dhabi’s real twist.
THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS
Bouncing back: Virat Kohli
World according to Virat Kohli
Time was when a batsman scoring his maiden Test hundred would acknowledge the skill of the bowling and tell us his heart was in his mouth when he played and missed on 38 and insist it was an honour to open his account at such a great venue.
But Virat Kohli, a player apparently contractually obliged to scowl, even in the throes of delirium, felt his classy ton at Adelaide was extra special… because of all the sledging.
During India’s tour of Australia, Kohli has enhanced his mild-mannered reputation by showing his middle finger to the SCG – a nervous twitch that cost him 50 per cent of his match fee. For whatever reason, other teams like to bait him. But they will know better now.
‘To give it back verbally and then score a hundred is even better,’ he said after his 116 at Adelaide. Truly, we live in weird times.
More mockery for Buchanan
What is it about strong-willed Aussie leg-spinners and John Buchanan Shane Warne is incapable of hearing the word “coach” without telling us it’s something to travel to the ground in (we know, Shane, we know), and last week Stuart MacGill – one of many young Australians trying to forge a career for themselves in the Big Bash League – had his say in the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘Images of John Buchanan sitting in front of a computer screen still wake me up at night in a cold sweat,’ explained MacGill, before insisting that Buchanan used to spend most of his time at the laptop forwarding silly jokes. The rest of the piece is not much more complimentary.
At one point, MacGill recalls a discussion with Buchanan at tea during an Ashes Test. Buchanan wants MacGill to keep the batsmen quiet by bowling on off-stump – this is what his data tell him. MacGill is less sure: ‘I thanked him kindly for his input and asked him whether or not he thought I should concentrate instead on getting them out. His blank face indicated that he would have to go back to the laptop before he could respond.’
Does Andy Flower have to deal with this kind of thing from Monty Panesar
Memories, like the corners of my mind…
While we’re on the subject, it seems Australians just can’t let go of Warne. Asked by the Aussie Sunday Telegraph who their best spinner was, readers chose Warne (57%) ahead of their current Test No 1 Nathan Lyon (28%). Mind you, Lyon may conclude the poll’s findings need to be taken with a pinch of salt: three-quarters in the same poll reckoned Australia had the team to win back the Ashes in 2013.
Brave new world
Allow us, for a moment, to look on the bright side. We all know English (and South African) batsmen are genetically programmed to poke at spinners from the crease, but two innings on the England Lions tour of Sri Lanka suggest all may not be lost.
First Jos Buttler cracked 102 not out in 56 balls in Dambulla, then his Somerset wicketkeeping colleague Craig Kieswetter stroked a relatively sedate unbeaten 112 off 99 balls to make it 2-0. Genes can take a while to lose their clout.
They’re tricky like that. But you just never know.