The Desert Drats

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What to make of that series? A closely fought campaign or one where there was a clear winner. An unfortunate team meeting a fortunate one? I have to say, I’m not really sure.

So while I’m reading some ultra-defensive pieces about the team, and also some coruscating attacks on county cricket and the players we have, I find myself somewhere in the middle. I had a twitter discussion with Innocent Bystander before this series where he made a point that he thought England were perhaps transitioning earlier than other teams, and that there is a distinct lack of top class international test cricketers compared to a few years ago. I agree to a degree. Let’s look at Pakistan. There were key batting contributions in the tests by their old guard – Shoaib Malik in the first test, Misbah and Younus in the second test, Hafeez in the final game. But alongside them there is some youthful batting promise, that is becoming increasingly battle hardened. This blog, when it has been bothered to update Century Watch, notes that Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali make test runs regularly. Safraz Ahmed is a more than interesting prospect as a keeper-batsman (and he’ll need to be because Kamran Akmal seems to be making runs in domestic cricket – three centuries in four matches). Their bowling was always interesting. They have some top spinners, and in Yasir Shah a star. Shoaib Malik had a glorious swansong, while Babar is a really good number two spinner (as he showed when being the lead in Abu Dhabi). Wahab Riaz is a really exciting bowler, while Imran Khan and Rahit Ali gave good support. Lurking in the wings is the man to split world cricket, Mohammed Amir, taking wickets for a Gas Company.

Pakistan’s bowling was better than England’s. The results of the last two matches suggested that we were found wanting a little when the heat rose. England’s inability to make more of their position in the first innings at Sharjah was ultimately fatal to their hopes of drawing the series. The fingers were pointed at our spin bowling as if England’s score of just over 300 was acceptable. Maybe Alastair Cook’s monstrous 263 in Abu Dhabi was an outlier, but top players need to be making hundreds against good bowling in difficult conditions. Root did it at Trent Bridge for example. It wasn’t the abomination that was 2012, but it wasn’t a quantum leap forward either. 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s are all well and good, but they need to be your second best score in an innings rather than the highest. Williamson, McCullum, Warner, Latham (twice) and Ross Taylor have scored tons in the UAE in the past three years. Alastair Cook is our only man to score over 90 in six attempts!

Anderson and Broad can’t really be faulted. I saw that some thought this was back to the days of bowling dry, but they took wickets and kept control, which meant exerting pressure. Sure, there were frustrating times when the spinners were hammered, and that’s where the fingers are pointed.

I think the key issue from a series like this is whether England are moving forward, and that is what is so confusing here. We have a winter in India and Bangladesh (I’m not so sure that’s going to happen) next year so our all round development has to be in our thoughts as well as the here and now.

We still don’t have an opening partner for Cook. Many have tried, none have truly succeeded. The least worst have been Compton and Carberry, the oddest was Trott, the most expedient was Moeen, and the two that were given the post and failed to last were Robson and Lyth. Now what? Hales? Yeah. Good luck with that. He looks a test number 6 to me, at best.

Number 3 is currently the residence of Ian Bell. He had a nearly series, but the frustrations of his critics have hardly been calmed by his output here. He’ll bat here against South Africa (unless he jacks it in) and I’ve a feeling we will be saying the same thing as we are now. Is he ever going to be prolific again? Is this the slot James Taylor eventually lands in.

Joe Root is a fixture at 4, and his lack of hundreds on this tour, while a concern, also show how much we rely on him. His output is crucial, perhaps too crucial. I see many saying why doesn’t he bowl more, and I’ll say we need his back spared for batting, not bowling.

At number 5 we had Bairstow and Taylor. Bairstow is going to get the gloves for South Africa, one would imagine, and I thought I saw some development on this tour with the bat. But the question remains over whether he is really good enough. He’s never been given the sort of run he has now, and I think it essential he gets the first two or three tests in South Africa, and if it isn’t a total disaster, stick with it. While I would have stuck with Buttler (but a close call), this role is his now until he loses it,

Ben Stokes is a frustrating talent, but we know that. He’s not the problem, so it’s something we can pass by. But he’s got to get better against spin. His bowling will reap rewards on other days.

The one thing you can’t get away from is that the middle order is a total mess. While we can all look back and laugh to those six months ago who said there were no middle order vacancies so you KP fanboys can go whistle, the fact is if this team were being picked on merit, the spectre from Kwazulu Natal would be looming large. It’s too late now, of course it is, and his record in the UAE last time was dreadful (but he came back to form with that magnificent hundred in Colombo soon after) but that middle order misses him. It….just…..does.

The bowling was odd. Broad couldn’t take wickets early, but then kept the runs down and tooks some scalps. He batted pretty well (his disasters of a year ago seem a thing of the past) too. He’s an unappreciated player, and he’s a superb player. Let’s hope he stays fit. Jimmy bowled very well, of course, and we take him for granted. While I know we all get fed up with the hyperbolic press, making him into the “greatest ever” or the “best in the world”, he’s a world class performer, one of the best around, and he’s on our team. He’s not my favourite player, but that’s irrelevant. He’s a treasure for England.

The spinners were thrown under the bus (the batsmen are as culpable) and to a degree it is deserved. The Adil Rashid that bowled out the Pakistanis in Abu Dhabi must have been fed up with being told how many bad balls he bowled, how he bowls too slowly and those little dog whistles about his commitment carrying over from Lord’s last summer, that it must get to him to a degree. We do focus on what he doesn’t do. His batting in the second test showed he has something to give. I do hope we don’t give up on him. Moeen is being ruined by this team – he’s neither here nor there. A spin bowler asked to open. A middle-order bat asked to spin. A spin bowler batting at 8. He’s not an all-rounder, he’s a utility player. I’m absolutely clueless about what they want from him, what they expect. This is as curious a test career as I can think of. The only player I can think treated anywhere near like this is Shane Watson. That’s not a precedent to be set. Samit Patel won’t play for England again, I suspect. Zafar Ansari will have that sort of place next time, and we might watch England wonder what the hell to do with him, when (or if) they pick him.

So what do we do now? I have absolutely no idea. The Durban test starts on Boxing Day. England will line-up like this, maybe? Cook, Hales, Bell, Root, Taylor, Stokes (if fit), Bairstow, Ali, Broad, Wood and Anderson. Anything else will be down to injury or a shock selection. Who knows if it will be good enough, because we won’t be facing green seamers, but pacier, better wickets, perhaps. There seems some confidence that we will do better on those wickets. I’m not so sure.

I’m really not sure what to make of this. It was better than 2012, maybe the same as 2005. There are calls to reform county cricket. There are cries about the state of spin bowling. There are questions over team selections. I’m at a loss. Probably best to just appreciate an interesting, testing series, with some good cricket and some not so good. It was more appealing than watching green seamers and 60 all out. I don’t think England were bad. They just weren’t as good as Pakistan. Maybe it’s the simplest way to look at it. England to me are a team of confusion, and without an Ashes win, the pitchforks might be well and truly out. Maybe those green seamers saved more than Alastair’s skin; they bought him some time, and his team some time.

I’d be interested in any other thoughts.

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