Thursday 19 January 2012

Winning 'dry'

There was a lot to enjoy about Pakistan’s shockingly straightforward victory in the first Test. Saeed Ajmal bewitching England’s batsmen into submission on a first-day pitch was a highlight. But for a team celebrated for their volatility, it was Pakistan’s stubbornness in pursuit of victory that impressed most.

It has been Misbah-ul-Haq’s way since he took over as captain after the spot fixing debacle. While victories against Test cricket’s weaker nations showed promise, to outdo England - at their own conservative approach - was something to cherish.

Though Andrew Strauss may be reluctant to admit it at this precise moment, he has something of a kindred spirit in Misbah. Both give the air of enlightened bureaucrats, mucking in stoically for the greater good. Both claimed the captaincy at moments of relative turmoil but Misbah has had little of the structural support Strauss enjoys. Pakistan’s backroom organisation has been improving, but it’s been Misbah alone whose forged unity and discipline on the field.

It’s the first time England have been up against a side prepared to match their pragmatism shot for shot. Or leave for leave. England have climbed the rankings by being prepared to dial down the pace of the game at a time when the rest of the world seemed intent on hurrying it up. Bowling ‘dry’ was matched by Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott laying sturdy foundations with the batting equivalent.

But in the first Test Pakistan too resisted all frivolity. After bundling England out in less than a day it would have been easy for their batsmen to come out trying to dominate and kick home the advantage. But that might have let England back into the game.

Instead openers Mohammed Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar calmly negotiated the new ball - England’s biggest hope - before Younis Khan, Misbah himself and Adnan Akmal all made solid contributions. By nudging and tucking their way, at 2.82 an over, to a 146-run lead, they effectively closed the door on England.

Though Pakistan’s bowlers hardly needed patience - the tourists were too generous for that - they were still miserly. Misbah set low-ego fields, just as Strauss might have done, and allowed England to make the mistakes they seemed intent on.

In the past England could have taken hope from the fact a crushing Pakistan win could easily be followed by a clanging defeat a week later. Team Misbah may prove a far more robust outfit.

Monday 16 January 2012

Swann should beware the No.1 tag

If India’s recent troubles show anything it’s that life up top is precarious. All the sweat exhausted inching to the summit can rapidly feel wasted tumbling back down again. As Graeme Swann looks ahead to the first Test against Pakistan, it is something he might reflect on.

More than anyone else in the England side, he has had to struggle to get to where he is – the world’s best-ranked spinner in the world’s best-ranked side. But when reaching the top is greeted with a shower of rewards, it is easy to forget just hard that journey is.  Fine margins separate the best and dropping even an imperceptible level - think Rob Key relaxing a fraction against Damien Martyn - can leave you grimly exposed.

Be it the prickly autobiography, the out-for-Christmas DVD or the fact that, over the last three series, his 40 wickets have come at 35.22, Swann gives the impression of a cricketer just off the boil. His rise has closely followed England's and as he and the team enter a two-year period that will go a long way to defining their history, he needs to prove his focus is fastened to the task at hand.

After a forgettable performance - along with the rest of the team - in the ODI series India, Swann has started this tour being outbowled by Monty Panesar. He is clearly one who enjoys his standing as England's best and if that rivalry doesn't sharpen him then lining up against Saeed Ajmal should. 

Ajmal has blossomed under Misbah-ul-Haq and - with 50 at 23.86 - was Test cricket's leading wicket taker in 2011. Like Swann, he is a mischievous type and, armed with the best doosra in the game, is the main challenger to Swann's top-dog status.

With vapid pitches and cloudless skies expected in Dubai, Swann's role in a four-man attack is the most important in the team. Ajmal, likewise, is the key Pakistani threat. England's tail, already weakened by Tim Bresnan's absence, has been central to the team's resilience. The lower-order, from Matt Prior down, have bailed England out on more than one occasion. Ajmal, though, has the variations to run through them. Swann's importance won't just be with ball in hand.

How Swann fares will give a good window into the how firm a grip Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss have on the mindset of the squad. All the right noises seem to emerge from press conferences, with every player on message with platitudes about 'new challenges' and the like. But under bright sun and in a bare stadium, just how driven the side are will be revealed.

Both Swann and England will do well to leave UAE with their lofty reputations intact.