OUT of their comfort zone and their depth, the ability to talk a good game has rarely been mirrored out in the middle this last fortnight, where a failure to combat Pakistan’s battery of spinners has already rendered England’s status as the world’s premier Test force tenuous at best.
Should their batsmen fail to discover a miracle cure in time for the third Test in Dubai, South Africa will have usurped Andrew Strauss’s side at the head of the rankings before their visit to these shores in the summer, assuming they beat New Zealand 3-0 in March.
Such a demotion would represent an embarrassment on terms with Saturday’s capitulation in Abu Dhabi, where Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal combined to bowl the tourists out for just 72 and claim the series.
“Saturday was tough watching for anyone who loves England cricket,” said head coach Andy Flower. “But we weren’t good enough to deal with their spinners; we weren’t skilful enough and we didn’t deal with the pressure well enough. I think we have to face up to those facts; our batting against spin let us down.”
A master against spin during his playing career, Flower must now urgently seek to impress his own methods on a clutch of batsmen who either lack the patience to wait for the bad ball, or the personality to impose themselves at the crease.
Ian Bell, who in the past has been bamboozled by the likes of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, certainly falls into that latter category, while Strauss and even Jonathan Trott and Alastair Cook must open up greater scoring options if they are to prosper in these conditions.
Kevin Pietersen remains all at sea against left-arm spin, while Eoin Morgan does not seem certain as to whether he has been given full license to bring his innovative one-day batting style to the Test arena.
With this summer’s demanding schedule sandwiched in between daunting trips to Sri Lanka and India there is no hiding place for England’s top order, who must yearn for the comforts of the Gabba and Adelaide Oval where they made nearly 1,400 runs in three innings last winter.
Immense credit should go to pacemen Stuart Broad and James Anderson, who bowled England into contention in both matches, while Graeme Swann’s continued excellence and Monty Panesar’s renaissance offered significant consolation in defeat. It was a sentiment echoed by Flower, who said: “Sunday was very poor but the three days preceding that were pretty good. The bowlers and fielders were outstanding, and Monty Panesar was great in his comeback game.”
Flower will know, however, that although the equations that calculate England to be the best team in the world will see them respected by their opposition, until this group of players can conquer the challenge of winning in the subcontinent their world No1 tag, should it be theirs beyond March, will ring hollow.