England fail to banish winter blues

“Playing for pride”: the refuge, some cynics might say, of the loser, the has-been, the fighter past his prime, the team for whom a campaign has not exactly gone according to plan. Playing for pride is the only thing you have left when the main prize is gone, and England find themselves in this position going into the third Test at Dubai on Friday.

I don’t think anyone seriously believes England were arrogant enough to expect that this tour would be a cakewalk. The more cautious among us might have been fairly philosophical over the loss in the first Test: “ring-rusty”, “long lay-off” and “challenging conditions” were just some of the reasonable explanations bandied around to excuse the team’s flat-footedness against spin – though the sour grapes directed at the legality of Saeed Ajmal’s doosra threatened to turn into a very bitter vintage indeed in some sections of the media.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one Test might be regarded merely as a blip; to lose two starts to look like a malaise.

It would have been reasonable to expect England to learn from their Dubai disaster and come back and win at Abu Dhabi. They almost did. Ultimately, though, we were treated to the horrifying spectacle we thought we’d left behind us after the horror days of 2006-7 and more recently Jamaica in 2009; a procession of veal-eyed batsmen stumbling through a dark smog of panic and indecision, misjudging spin, misreading length, and unsure whether to play forward or back as if they were in the throes of some kind of nervous hokey-cokey breakdown.

A target of 145 started to look like 300 when they were 5-56; by the time they were all out for 72 it resembled some mythical, unattainable object, like a phoenix egg, or a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. You have to laugh, but to do so, you’d have to block out numerous flashbacks and the memory of sitting curled up in the corner of the living room in a foetal position.

The bowling was fine. Monty Panesar, back in the side after 29 Test matches, made his comeback in some style with 6-62 in Pakistan’s second innings, and has surely nailed down a spot in the side for the upcoming tour to Sri Lanka, where, the curators assure us, raging turners will be laid on for our bamboozlement. Stuart Broad, too, has had an excellent series so far, making up for all those wasted deliveries banged in short against Sri Lanka last summer while drunk on delusions of being England’s “enforcer”. His 58* with the bat was handy, too.

Once again, as in Dubai, it was the batsmen who let the side down. The false hope of a 139-run partnership between Cook and Trott in England’s first innings was dashed in their second. I’m sure you’ve digested the match reports in all their disbelieving horror. Cook and Strauss are too similar as an opening partnership, given their molasses-like commencement of the run-chase; Ian Bell still cannot read the doosra; Eoin Morgan continues to show plenty of confidence off the field but not much on it; Trott’s inability to bat at 3 due to requiring close proximity to a toilet meant it was all Trott’s trots’ fault, and the not-insignificant fact of having captained England to victory in two Ashes series and the number one position is all that seems to be saving Strauss from a more intense examination as to his current inability to score. Meanwhile, Kevin Pietersen is still not English enough. This, in a nutshell, is how England’s shambolic performance was summed up in various quarters the day after, with a bit of added subtext (because let’s be honest, you’d have to be insane to seriously consider dropping Pietersen even given his current dip in form).

Andy Flower has acknowledged the cries that something must be done by saying he is not afraid to make changes. The majority view seems to be Ravi Bopara in for the struggling Morgan, but I cannot see how Bopara would be a significant improvement other than that he offers another bowling option. Given the panic that swiftly infected England’s run-chase, it’s hard to see how Ravi could have rescued them. Morgan deserves one more chance, though that swivel-wristed bossing of the bowling he displays in ODIs seems to have gone strangely AWOL in Tests.

One could say a change more immediate and effective would have been to put Swann or Broad in at 3 in place of the ailing Trott instead of the discombobulated Bell, but then it takes two to make a partnership, and there were precious few of those. Flower, though, is not one for snap decisions, so I’ll be surprised if he makes one now regarding Friday’s lineup.

Credit, of course, must go to Pakistan. I’ve not once seen the word “mercurial” applied to them in the last couple of weeks, and that has been entirely to their credit. The leadership of Misbah ul-Haq has been a prime factor in this. He is cut from the same captaincy cloth as Strauss; he is calm and unruffled, tends towards the conservative at times, but leads by example and is a fine ambassador for his team. As well as a superb spin attack, the team has two bright young stars for the future on the batting front as well in Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali, and the PCB are now mulling over whether to retain Mohsin Khan as coach, or hire Dav Whatmore: to shake things up now with a new coach could potentially undo the progress the team has made since the dark days of 2010 – days which everyone would like to forget.

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I see the shortlist of players up for auction in the IPL on the 4th of February has been announced, and glancing down the list of names I was surprised and pleased to see the name of Mal Loye, formerly of Northants, Lancashire and (briefly) England. Loye was released from Northants at the end of last year, and while it’s understandable given his absences due to injury were getting longer, I always felt he was treated rather shabbily by the England selectors after his fireworks in the 2007 Commonwealth Bank series, and should have been given another chance. Any IPL franchise with a spare $50,000 could do a lot worse than snap him up. You might not get many matches out of him before bits of him start seizing up and falling off, but you’ll be guaranteed at least a couple of DLF maximums over square leg off the quick bowlers, and who wouldn’t pay to see that?


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