Well isn’t this going swimmingly?
Call it a radical thought, but perhaps in the discussion around how to fix the away form, England have overlooked a slightly bigger problem. They’re really not very good. And when not very good, a preparation consisting of the IPL and very early season games on damp tracks might not be totally conducive to good performances at Test level. England have only had three areas where they’ve been second best in this match – namely batting, bowling and fielding, against an inexperienced but talented Pakistan side who have gone through the highly unfashionable approach of preparing properly. Ireland have an opportunity in future to ensure they get Test cricket at home by serving as high quality warm up for an England series, and while this seems condescending given England’s current woes, the difficulty of the fringe sides in gaining Test exposure is well documented. A future of thoroughly prepared overseas teams against England sides who are anything but could prove a highly ironic development.
Of course, when England play poorly it is often the bowlers who pay the price, and it may be the case that here too they become the ones at risk for weirdly failing to adequately turn 184 into a decent score. England didn’t bowl that badly today – it could have been better, certainly, not least if England hadn’t shelled six or seven (depending on how harsh an observer is feeling) catches. Cook was particularly guilty, though it does tend to be first slip who is most culpable when a team gets the drops, just because he usually gets the most chances.
350-8 in many circumstances would be an adequate enough day, the problem is that yesterday was so bad it makes it look disastrous. It certainly could have been substantially better had those catches been taken, but a poor batting display also has the effect of taking the pressure off the opposition batsmen and placing it on the bowlers and fielders who have to (again) try and rescue the team from the mess of their own creation. Struggling teams miss chances, confident teams take them. Anderson and Broad in particular passed the edge repeatedly, and did keep their lengths fairly consistent throughout. They could have been luckier, certainly. Stokes was the most effective of the other bowlers, working up decent pace at times as he did his best impression of someone livid at the match situation.
For Pakistan it was a case of sharing the workload. Four players passed fifty, and they never looked to be in particular difficulties, remorselessly grinding England down, first to eliminate the modest deficit overnight and then to stretch the lead. The nasty blow to Babar Azam’s arm allowed England to claim some late wickets, making the first two days merely horrendous rather than utterly catastrophic. Pakistan thoroughly deserve their commanding lead, they have totally outplayed England to this point.
166 is already an enormous advantage, and it’s possible – especially if Babar bats tomorrow – that they could push it closer to 200, a situation in which England would need to bat out of their skins to have any chance at all, and where recent history suggests an innings defeat is more likely. England have lost five of their last seven Tests, winning none of them, and six in eight is well and truly on the cards. But is anyone really surprised? The ECB have tried to point to away form as being the problem, without ever seemingly recognising that being a thoroughly modest team might be the bigger reason for such a lack of success. Whatever the issues around a tail off in Cook’s form, even the lesser Cook is a batting titan in this poor team, while Broad and Anderson are intent on demonstrating to everyone that even as they get older the prospect of the team without them is quite terrifying. Once again, the most familiar sensation is that of watching the West Indies attack as Walsh and Ambrose reached the end of their careers.
Tomorrow England will need to knuckle down, bat time and try to whittle down the deficit, yet so few of the batting order are capable of that kind of approach. The selection of Buttler at seven has merit when a side is sufficiently strong to flay the opposition bowlers when pushing for a win, not so much when England are consistently in trouble. What is he supposed to do, bat in a totally alien way to his strengths?
Yet again the teams fell short of the required number of overs in the day, this time three short, yesterday six short. Yet again there’s no sign of anyone especially caring. The range of official excuses has become tiresome – whatever delays there might be during play (and certainly there were a couple today, not least the injury to Babar Azam) ought to be catered for by the additional half hour. The only conclusion is that the ICC don’t care, and nor do the national boards or indeed the players. In truth, there’s not that much evidence that spectators are that bothered by it either, but it doesn’t mean that it is acceptable, it’s robbing spectators of part of their ticket fee. It is particularly noteworthy given the various discussions around the Hundred, and the supposed shortening from T20 to fit into the allotted time. That the authorities don’t care when play takes far too long is by far a better indicator of the problem than any artificial creation to ensure play is within a specific timeframe. Yet it appears that those objecting are shouting into the wind, even if David Lloyd, to his credit, is one of very few commentators who consistently complains about it. Given the match situation, perhaps fewer overs is indeed a mercy.
A three day finish is quite possible. A huge defeat is quite likely. And more than that, it could be seen coming. But the ECB have Test cricket as their top priority, so no need to worry, right?