Have England produced, in living memory, a worse performance than that served up to three successive full houses at Lord’s in the first Test against Pakistan? Pakistan secured a nine-wicket victory just before lunch on the fourth day.
It must certainly rank among the front runners. Consider the context. It was played in the second half of May, in conditions that were quintessentially English. That in itself gave them something like impregnability: England had not lost the first Test of the summer since 1995 (again to put that in context, the first series is usually a sort of warm-up act – Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka – and Pakistan can never be treated as a warm-up act).
The England eleven comprised some of the biggest names in world cricket: Joe Root, Alastair Cook, James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Ben Stokes. Pakistan are never short of talent but since their last tour of England, only two years ago, they had lost their two giants, Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, and were now a relatively inexperienced outfit certainly in English conditions.
The leg-spinner Yasir Shah, arguably their best bowler, was injured and could not tour. Of the Lord’s eleven, Mohammed Abbas, Haris Sohail, Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf and Imam-ul-Haq had played a total of fifteen Tests between them. (A number of England’s team have individually played fifteen Tests in the last twelve months.)
You would think, wouldn’t you, that all this – the home advantage, the depth of experience, would somehow benefit England. But not a bit of it. In fairness to the players, who have to do the business on the pitch, their task, at least where Test cricket is concerned, is not made any easier by the sport’s administrators.
England until relatively recently had a domestic first-class structure that was the envy of the cricketing world. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), led by the Yorkshire businessman Colin Graves (we thought it couldn’t get any worse after Giles Clarke – we were wrong) is systematically destroying that structure.
The marginalisation of Test cricket is demonstrated by the fact that there are no matches in June and July, the height of the English summer and the county (four day) championship has likewise been squeezed into the season’s extremities. Graves and his business-minded colleagues are much more interested in next year’s admittedly very important World Cup and, perhaps less justifiably, their new-fangled and slightly nonsensical 100-ball competition.
Leaving all that aside, the short-term effect of administrative incompetence, or at best indifference, was that Pakistan were, absurdly, much better prepared than England. And it showed. Their preparation had included a Test match against Ireland which turned out to be a serious contest, while a number of England players were prevented by the ECB from playing for their counties. Two of the eleven, Stokes and Jos Buttler, had just – literally just – returned from playing 20 over cricket in the Indian Premier League (IPL).
This is not a straightforward issue. The world’s top players have to be allowed to play in the IPL; it’s as simple as that. If their boards tried to stop them, they’d go anyway because the money is so good, and the whole system would be threatened. So somehow the IPL in particular but some of the other leagues too, must be accommodated within an increasingly crowded international schedule. This is at least part of the rationale for the argument in favour of four-day Tests.
There is another aspect to this. One reason, or excuse, sometimes proffered for England’s consistently disappointing performances in Test cricket is that they play so much 20 and 50 over cricket that the batsmen in particular find it difficult to adjust. If true, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of their (highly paid) professionalism. As it happens, the English batsman, apart from Cook, whose performance most exemplified the old-fashioned virtues of Test batting was Buttler.
But the real eye-opener was provided by Pakistan’s batsmen. After England’s ill-disciplined wafting on the first day (Cook excepted) Pakistan demonstrated how to bat in Test cricket and how to build partnerships. And although for obvious reasons they don’t play in the IPL, they have their own T20 league. And they play a lot of 50-over cricket, which they are rather good at. Who won last year’s Champions Trophy in England? Pakistan, and seven of the side who appeared in that extraordinary final against India were playing at Lord’s. But it does not seem to prevent them from playing effectively at Test level.
Pakistan just looked a much better side. Their bowling looked more threatening. Their fielding was excellent. England dropped five catches on the second day; Pakistan dropped none throughout the match. The only time Pakistan looked less than in complete command was on the third evening when, in contrast to the general run of play, Buttler and debutant Dom Bess put on a hundred for the seventh wicket. But next morning the highly effective opening bowlers Mohammed Amir and Mohammad Abbas saw to it that, as in the first innings, the English tail contributed nothing.
England’s top order remains a problem, as it has for years, it seems. Root has a Test average of over fifty, but most sides would be happy to give him that every time he bats. It is not going to win or even save any games for England. It was an odd game for batsmen though. There were some fine innings, especially from Root and Asad Shafiq, but no one made more than Cook’s 70.
It may well be that England will bounce back. Pakistan will be without the talented Babar Azam, who had an arm broken while batting. And they may be without their highly effective captain-wicketkeeper Sarfraz Ahmed who is under threat of suspension because of what was indeed a deplorably slow over rate. But it will take a lot for England to refute the reputation they are acquiring of being a second-rate Test team.
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