Iain Fletcher: No place to push boundaries

DID you hear that? That pop of a balloon bursting. All it took was three days away from the comforts of home – pitches with bounce and seam movement – and England’s pretensions as the best Test team in the world were shattered.

Oh it is easy to say it was only one game and no one should panic – indeed an assortment of England players and management have already done that – but no words or platitudes can change the fact that England were utterly thrashed.

And, for all the brave talk that they have a habit of following a defeat with a victory, we should consider that England have only won one of their last 18 Test matches in Asia.

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Best in the world? The next two weeks is the time to prove it. Win one and draw one and there is hope for England but the likelihood is they will lose this series 2-0 or even 3-0. If so it will not augur well for the trip to Sri Lanka in March nor the autumn series in India. Unless they learn how to play in Asia, they can never be considered the best.

So what did the world learn in Dubai last week? Firstly, Test matches in cities with no support are soulless. Poor old Saeed Ajmal bowled superbly and yet no one was present to witness it. Pakistan may be homeless because of the 2009 terrorist attack on the Sri Lankans in Lahore but, apart from England, Australia and occasionally South Africa, countries struggle to draw spectators for Test cricket. Matches played in empty stadiums are a curse. Wherever this happens the ICC would be better served spending some of their vast TV contract dollars on subsiding free tickets for all. Get the stands full, create atmosphere and, more importantly, interest.

Secondly, that England’s much-vaunted batting line-up is surprisingly fragile. They can score mammoth totals – Brisbane last winter and Edgbaston in the summer – but also get skittled too cheaply rather too often. On the sub-continent, pitches tend to be a lot slower. They lack bounce and pace, batsmen grind and graft for big scores over many hours and bowlers prise wickets out with discipline and patience. England’s bowlers did a magnificent job. Pakistan would have thought 450 was achievable but perseverance, accuracy and working together to frustrate run-scoring meant the England attack never allowed Pakistan to break the shackles. It was a fantastic effort and no blame can be attributed to the bowlers.

So, if England are to compete in this series, the batters need to occupy the crease long enough to score a minimum of 350 runs and hopefully 400 or more. That means surviving for 120 overs and setting their mindset for accumulation rather than dominance. Mohammad Hafeez showed how to do it as he nipped, nudged, glanced and manoeuvred the ball into gaps and pick-pocketed his way to 88. It was an excellent innings based on playing the conditions.

There is some encouragement for England. Both Matt Prior in the first innings and Jonathan Trott in the second proved it can be done. They displayed great patience, concentrated on playing almost exclusively with a straight bat and were content to progress in singles and the occasional two. Most importantly they were content to just survive at the start. Then as they started to read the spin of Ajmal they collected runs sensibly.

But England need more than one player an innings doing it. The top six absolutely have to get England above 200 and ideally 250. Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook are the keys and their job is to survive. Early wickets in Abu Dhabi and the match will follow a similar pattern to last week’s in Dubai. The attrition must start from the opening partnership as the batsmen understand their job is not glamorous. The only player who may be given a licence to attack is Kevin Pietersen. His dismissal in the second innings was stupid, hooking directly to the deep square leg, but he can alter a game in a couple of hours. Pakistan were in complete control in Dubai after England lost five wickets in the first session. One hour of Pietersen successfully attacking and fractures may start to appear in the Pakistani camp. Other batsmen could profit as irritated bowlers proffer more bad balls.

The plan is simple for England. Bat a long time, the runs will slowly accumulate. Hopefully, Pietersen can get in, as his greater ability will mean he scores faster.

England must then bowl as superbly as they did last week whether it is the same group or Monty Panesar comes in. Do all that and they have a chance.

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