It still doesn’t seem that long since last summer when I exalted in England becoming the No.1 ranked Test Cricket nation in the world. We had just demolished a bedraggled Indian team – the previous No.1 – in a series of tests held in England. India have subsequently been humbled again in Australia, while the England team seemed to take an extended holiday, well-deserved after their amazing progress in the last few years. By the end of the summer of 2011, England had several of the top-ranked batsmen and bowlers in the world and the team was on an irrepressible run of form. They had won 16 out their last 25 tests, losing just 3.
It’s a well-worn cliché among test cricket aficionados that those less familiar with the intricacies of this 5-day spectacle often ask…
to which there is no easy answer. It just doesn’t work like that. It really is more complicated than that.
…until the recent series between England and Pakistan, held in the United Arab Emirates. Pakistan came into this having suffered an extended pounding over the atrocious match-fixing scandals, several years of controversy over captains, disputes in the dressing-room, and poor (or at least inconsistent) results – most notably in England in 2010, when they lost 3 test matches heavily and were bowled out for under 100 on three occasions.
On 17th January 2012, England won the toss and decided to bat on what seemed a good pitch. By lunch they were 52-5, and by the end of Day 3 they had lost by 10 wickets. A week later and England seemed to bounce back. They were largely in control of the 2nd test, and just before the end of Day 3 needed 145 to win. By the end of that day they had struggled to 39-4, and capitulated to 72 all out. Another week later, and the bowlers again performed, skittling Pakistan for just 99, but again Pakistan were victorious for a 3-0 series whitewash.
Who’s winning? Well, whenever England were bowling, we looked pretty good, except for one day in the final match when Azhar Ali and Younis Khan played with exemplary skill and patience to blunt our attack and sap our will. When England were batting, there was only ever one side in it. The Pakistani spinners made us look very ordinary, and especially the middle order of Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell and Eoin Morgan.
Apparently a good player doesn’t become a bad player overnight. These three batsmen have made a case to be acclaimed as exceptions to the rule in recent weeks.
- In the 2010/2011 Ashes series, Pietersen and Bell scored 689 runs in 5 tests at an average of 63
- In 2011 against Sri Lanka, Pietersen, Bell & Morgan scored 661 runs in 3 tests, averaging 83
- In 2011 against India, the threesome scored 1,231 runs in 4 tests, averaging 77 (Bell & Pietersen both hit a double-hundred; Morgan also scored a century)
- In this last series against Pakistan, they combined for just 200 runs in 18 innings during the 3 tests at an average of just 11. Their highest score was 32, they only managed double figures 8 times in those 18 ‘efforts’, they only achieved one partnership of more than 15 runs in the series. They were outscored by bowlers Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad, who scored 210 runs in 12 innings and also managed to take 26 wickets during the series.
By almost any reckoning this is a pretty catastrophic performance and more than reflects the difference between the teams. Effectively only one of the three turned up for these matches. Compared to recent series, England might as well have played with only 9 batsmen. They seemed clueless against the spin of Ajmal and Rehman. Bell has subsequently been ‘rested/dropped’ for the upcoming One-Day Internationals, while KP has been given a chance to regain his mojo by opening the batting. Morgan must be going through his contacts looking for spinners he can get some practice against.
They’ve not become bad players, but they’ll never be thought of as great players if they can’t (re)learn how to bat against all bowlers on all surfaces.