A Bridge too far for Pakistan

I like Trent Bridge. It’s a Test ground with the intimacy of a small county ground. The crowd is close to the action, the old pavilion holds court companionably over the new stands which complement and do not overshadow it – a pleasant contrast to the desecration of Old Trafford through the addition of the red Duplo brick home to the prawn-sandwich brigade that is “The Point” – and the floodlights are the best in England.

The last international I saw here was last year’s day-nighter against Australia which saw Ricky Ponting score an imperious 126 that propelled his side to victory and threatened England with a 7-0 whitewash in the post-Ashes ODI series. England lost that game in part because their fielding was shoddy and Matt Prior’s keeping bloody awful. (As a side-note, this was the second day-night ODI I was supposed to have attended at Trent Bridge, but the whole “day-night” concept of the 2008 Eng v South Africa match was effectively kiboshed by Stuart Broad – he took  a superb five-for, SA were all out for 83, Matt Prior and Ian Bell knocked off the runs and the match finished at 5:35PM.)

So at Trent Bridge on Saturday I was expecting something tasty. By the end of it I wouldn’t say I felt disappointed, what with England on the cusp of victory, but there were a few things that left me feeling vaguely pissed off.

First, there was the matter of the follow-on. Pakistan had one wicket left, and needed 8 to make England bat again. As it happened, Umar Gul punched Jimmy Anderson through the onside for 4 first ball, second delivery was an lbw shout that was turned down on height, and the next ball cracked off the middle of Gul’s bat to the boundary: first objective achieved for Pakistan in a quest that was pretty much only about temporary survival, but that clawed back a little respectability for the team nevertheless.

Umar Gul hits it for 6

Umar Gul hits it for 6

At this point I was still labouring under the delusion that had Pakistan fallen short of these 8 runs Strauss would have made Pakistan bat again. Well, thank christ I’m not England captain, because according to a Sky Sports interview with Paul Collingwood before the start of the day’s play, he said England needed to be “ruthless” and bat again, that a lead of 200 or so would not be enough. Upon watching this later I may have been stricken with a brief fit of Tourette’s; I can’t remember. It’s more than likely, though. It was the use of the word “ruthless” that set me off. I have much respect for Strauss as captain – his man-management, his unruffled demeanour at the crease, his uninspiring yet safe-as-houses technique with the bat. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it really isn’t – he and Andy Flower have done good things for England’s standing in the international game, though one could argue that that successful captain-coach partnership exists as much by accident as design due to Kevin Pietersen’s upsetting of the apple-cart back in January of last year. But one thing Strauss also is as a captain is conservative. I’m not sure when “ruthless” became a euphemism for “playing it safe and taking no unnecessary risks”, but there you go.

So England batted again, which is pretty much what they were going to do anyway, even though the conditions were as ripe for swing and seam as they were the day before. Pakistan’s fielding once more let the bowling down, yet despite Cook being under the microscope it was Strauss who fell first through some peerlessly acrobatic comedy from the Akmal brothers – Umar at second slip muffed a simple chance and juggled it to his brother who, after a moment’s hesitation, and remembering he had a pair of wicket-keeping gloves on – dived forward and took the catch. It was a piece of actual and near-ineptitude that was almost beautiful in its balletic cack-handedness: you couldn’t have choreographed it if you tried.

Asif tried to entice an edge from Cook by bowling the same line to him outside off-stump but it was a rank leg-side delivery that enticed the edge to Kamran Akmal. There’s been talk of Cook suffering with a back injury that may need surgery at some point in the future. While I hope all goes well with that, a break from the game might do him good because he looks completely bloody clueless at the moment.

I have no idea how Pietersen racked up his first 10 or so runs and to be honest I don’t think he did either, though he and Trott were both pretty watchful for the rest of the session, and Trott looked less fidgety than usual. This pleased and disappointed me, because I find Trott’s tics, foibles and incessant gurning and muttering quite fascinating to watch. Still enough scraping to keep us all entertained, though, as he dug his trench and was in the process of installing a latrine and duckboards as everyone else was pissing off back to the pavilion for lunch.

Scratch scratch scratch

Scratch scratch scratch

I decided to attempt eating my own body-weight in mini sausage rolls, and pondered ice cream. The old couple behind me carried on with the same dialogue they’d been having all morning.

Woman (listening to commentary on radio while peering through binoculars at commentary box): “Is that Warne?”

Bloke: “No, it’s Gower and Hussein. Bumble’s on the left.”

Woman: “Where’s Warne?”

Bloke: “Well, I don’t bloody know. He’ll be on next, won’t he?”

Woman: “I can’t see through your binoculars. They are useless.”

Bloke: “So stop asking for them then. And anyway, it’s your eyes that are useless.”

Half an hour later:

Woman: “I think it’s Warne on now. Is that Atherton sat on the left?”

Bloke: “No, you daft woman. It’s Ramiz Raja.”

I’m usually lucky enough to be seated near such eccentrics. It is great. These are my people.

It was a good delivery from Gul that took Pietersen’s inside edge after lunch, ironically when he was starting to look more comfortable, and he was unlucky that Kamran Akmal got to it: it was a superb diving catch to the left that would have completely eluded the keeper in normal circumstances. Just when we were starting to see Kamran Akmal in a new, more appreciative light he dropped a regulation catch off Gul’s bowling which really should have done for Collingwood, warping from the sublime back to the inept in the space of one ball and reassuring us that, rather than being the target of bookmakers at Sydney, he really is that piss-poor as a keeper. A full and straight delivery that kept low dismantled Trott’s stumps, leaving him wandering off gurning in puzzlement at the wicket’s sudden propensity for variable bounce, and England were 64-4.

Trott's shattered stumps

Trott's shattered stumps

It was unrealistic to expect that Morgan and Collingwood would reprise their partnership from the first innings. Collingwood was scratchy and went for 1 off 19 balls, and while England now led by 244 runs Pakistan must have thought they were still in this match if they could get England’s lower order out quickly as Prior came to the crease.

Do not get me wrong, Prior’s ton has underlined why he is the best wicket-keeping option for England in Test matches, but mostly all it did was make me angry. Lots of things make me angry, and one of them is Matt Prior. He was responsible for running out Morgan – it was Morgan’s call, there were three runs on no problem, but Prior sent him back while using the cunning “if I don’t look at him, then it’s not my bloody fault if he’s three quarters of the way down the wicket, is it?” ploy while completely ignoring the hard-running ginger Irishman.

Add to that the colossally infuriating go-slow from 95 to 100, while Finn gamely blocked out most of 8 overs after Prior took a single off the first ball – lather, rinse, repeat – and well, let us just say it wasn’t an innings for the ages. During all this the chap in front of me managed to munch his way through a large chicken sandwich in laborious, chomping slo-mow, the number of pigeons on the practice wicket increased from one to five, the couple behind me seem to doze off and all of us lost the will to live and didn’t care. I was half hoping the bastard would get bowled on 99.

“Do you think Strauss will declare when he gets his ton?” someone asked, hopefully, and with desperation.

“Well, he’s not going to wait until he gets another one, is he?” was the answer, and we all laughed, and sobbed, at the same time.

Prior did get that ton, the pigeons flew away, and the bloke who’d just finished the chicken sandwich belched noisily and stood up to applaud as the declaration came.

Finn and Prior last wicket stand

Finn and Prior last wicket stand

Pakistan needed 435 to win and finished the day on 15-3. I was disappointed that they seemed to capitulate again so easily. It seemed like declaration bowling from them at times during the latter part of England’s innings, and I felt sorry for young Mohammad Amir, pushed out as nightwatchman like a lamb to the slaughter, head down, trudging slowly out to the middle, wishing he were anywhere else but here. Their body language betrayed them as being certain of failure the same way as at Headingley they were terrified of success.

I have grown quite fond of this young team over the past months. But they need a wiser head on shoulders that have borne the burden of situations like this before, and thus it was no surprise to read, the morning after their 354-run defeat, that Mohammad Yousuf has been drafted back into the squad.

As for England, Jimmy Anderson was mighty, Morgan proved himself a Test batsman, and Prior still makes me very angry. “I am an aggressive runner between the wickets,” he blustered in an interview afterwards, “and I make no apologies for that.” Alrighty then!

At the very least I’m hoping he bought Finn a few pints…

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