For many of us in snowy Britain this week, the halcyon days of the English summer are becoming an increasingly distant memory. For Andrew Strauss and his team, they must feel like a lifetime ago.
After last summer’s demolition of India, England found themselves in a rare position ahead of this tour; as favourites to win a test series in a major sub-continental nation. That they failed to live up to their billing is not altogether surprising. England last toured Pakistan in 2005/06, full of confidence after a monumental home victory, only for their much vaunted batting line-up to be humiliated by a wily old paceman and, perhaps more poignantly, an extraordinary, if controversial, off-spinner.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? For Akhtar and Kaneria read Gul and Ajmal; for Collingwood, Flintoff and Pietersen read Bell, Morgan and, erm, Pietersen. There are other, albeit more tenuous comparisons to be made with that series – the second innings collapse in Abu Dhabi was eerily reminiscent of the first test in Multan – but the point in general is this: the English batsmen have not been able to find a consistent method of playing quality spin bowling on turning pitches.
That is not to say this will always be the case. In Andy Flower England have not only one of the top coaches in the world, but also a man who was once regarded as one of the finest players of spin bowling in world cricket. His guidance alone should prove invaluable. Several of the current batting line-up can draw on valuable experience in sub-continental conditions; Cook, Strauss, and Bell have all made big scores in Asia. Many regarded winning the Ashes in Australia as a similarly improbable achievement, yet Flower’s men proved that they have the ability to dominate a major nation on their own turf.
For all the criticism of batsmen’s technique, it must be acknowledged that batting on sub-continental pitches is a quite unique mental challenge for an English player. Never will a county batsman encounter sharp turn of the like seen at grounds such as Dehli or Galle. It is perhaps this fear of the unknown, as much as failure of technique, which shackles the England batsmen. Cook, Trott, Prior and even Broad all showed that they have the ability to play Ajmal, yet appeared helpless under the pressure of a fourth-day chase.
So what can England do to address this issue? In terms of personnel, it is difficult to argue against dropping Eoin Morgan, who has been found out playing around his pads once too often. Otherwise, it may be that a change of attitude is required more than a change of technique. Both Misbah and Younis Khan conquered the English attack by playing aggressively against the spinners, using their feet to attack Swann and Panesar and subsequently disrupt their rhythm. In the likes of Pietersen and Bell, England have the players to adopt this approach, but after a damaging month in the desert, its execution may prove rather more difficult.