Pakistan vs England, 2nd Test, Abu Dhabi, 25th-28th Jan 2012
For the sake of the contest in the third test, it’s a shame England couldn’t finish off this test match that they had so nearly managed to win, but you can’t begrudge Pakistan a series victory after all they’ve been through recently and there’s nothing like thrashing your opponents 2-0. They’ve got a great captain in Misbah Ul-Haq, who makes all the right calls in the field and leads from the front with his batting, and even without their two incarcerated fast bowlers, their bowling attack was still too much for England’s uber-successful batting line-up. England lost chasing Pakistan’s meagre second-innings lead of 144, something they haven’t done since 1902. Obviously, as Michael Vaughan said on the BBC, “This England team has a problem against spin”.
Why is that? It has been and will be repeatedly pointed out that England are unfamiliar with subcontinent-style, slow-turning pitches. Or perhaps that there aren’t any good apinners in county cricket and so batsmen never develop an appropriate technique for dealing with spin. Indeed. But 1. they have adjusted to other unfamiliar conditions in other countries and 2. there have been some decent spinners in county cricket over the last few years for batsmen to learn to play against- Mushtaq Ahmed and Saqlain Mushtaq spring to mind. Even in their own squad Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann are pretty good spin bowlers to net against. At test level, most, if not all this team, have played numerous international games against Warne and Muralitharan. Why haven’t they developed a technique to deal with good spin bowling by now? The answer is of course a mental one.
In all our major sport teams there is a lack of creativity and independent thinking. The academy culture and the lavish amounts of money spent training players leads to a production line of sportsmen who have learned their sport and nothing else. What do they know of cricket who only cricket know? England’s batsmen can play fast bowling, even on ‘unfamiliar’ fast, bouncy tracks in Australia or South Africa, because it requires quick reflexes, good concentration and steadfast technique – something that can be trained. Playing unpredictable spin bowlers, there is no one method to learn. You must go forward sometimes and you must play back at others. You must pick the length and pick the wrong-uns and choose when it’s ok to play against the spin. Essentially you have to think. Over the years since the Duncan Fletcher regime, England teams have tried playing-spin-by-numbers, leading to a number of embarrassing dismissals from pre-meditated sweep shots.
This acadamised generation is remarkable for its lack of ideas. Players like Cook and Trott have made stupidity a virtue in batting: solidly and stolidly grinding out large centuries using the only two shots they know how play and leaving alone anything they don’t have to play. Imagine who’d you have from the England team in the commentary box on TMS. Kevin Pieterson is the only batter who’d have anything interesting or entertaining to say. The bowlers are a bit better. They’ve all had to learn new tricks and develop themselves and in Jimmy Anderson, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar (not so sure about Stuart Broad) they at least have a bit of personality about them. Matt Prior, playing in cricket’s traditionally maverick position, appears to be a bit more capable of thinking for himself and the massive improvement of his wicket keeping over the years suggests as much. But when I look back over the best batsmen in England teams over the last few years that I’ve been watching cricket – Gower, Gatting, Gooch, Lamb, Botham, Smith, Atherton, Stewart, Vaughan, Trescothick, etc. – most of them seem to have a bit of character about them (Gooch and Stewart probably the most boring off that list).
KP, as said, is the exception of the current team. But despite his good figures last year, he hasn’t really been the same player since the captaincy was (unfairly) taken away from him. Remember how he played Warne in that first ashes series? He made his own rules about batting and took the attack to him in a way few who played against him ever did. Now even the most innocuous spinner seems to be a problem for him.
England sport has for a long time suppressed creatives, particularly at international level. I heard John Barnes on the radio not so long ago explain that he couldn’t play the same game that he played for Liverpool when with England because of the mindset and rules they played under. Mavericks like him, Chris Waddle and Gazza were never really accommodated into the England set-up. In rugby we preferred Rob Andrew over Stuart Barnes; in cricket, Robert Croft over Phil Tufnell. Mike Catt only briefly flourished in the rugby team. Current players like James Simpson-Daniel, Ryan Lamb, Shane Gerraghty, Delon and Steffon Armitage have been under-used and mis-used. The one coach who brought something different, Brian Ashton, was sacked and replaced with the mind-numbingly stupid Martin Johnson. And Ashton’s rant in yesterday’s Independent is worth reading. Kids, he says, should learn in the streets and in parks not acadamies:
“Order is imposed on chaos as the participants learn to handle themselves in a maelstrom of uncertainty. In short, they develop an awareness of how games function, without the input of a coach or referee. And then? Then the man in the tracksuit comes along: whistle at the ready, coaching badge on chest, certificate in pocket. All too soon, the sense of freedom becomes nothing more than a distant memory. Drills abound – the military would be proud – and training fields are covered with the widest possible array of artificial aids.”
And that’s why England can’t play Saeed Ajmal.