Atherton reviews Pakistan’s whitewash of England

Michael Atherton in The Australian 8 February 2012 following the Times

WITH the fourth day drawing to a close – and after the opening thrusts of this Test, few would have thought that a possibility – a remarkable turnaround, on two fronts, was completed: not for more than a 100 years has a team bowled out for less than 100 in the first innings of a Test match gone on to win as Pakistan did in Dubai; and, even more remarkably, this by a team that was rudderless, disgraced and derided the world over less than two years ago.

Monday’s victory, the first whitewash by a Pakistan team over England, put the seal on the transformation that began on one of Pakistan’s darkest days at Lord’s in August 2010. Salman Butt’s fall opened the door for a 37-year-old who had been in and out of the team the previous few years, but more out than in, as more obviously talented players were preferred.

This transformation under Misbah-ul-Haq is a poke in the eye for those who would have had Pakistan thrown out of the world game and insisted that cricketing leopards could not change their spots.

As Misbah has shown in the United Arab Emirates, and as his inexperienced (in Tests but not years) team has demonstrated, a desire to make the best of yourself, to represent your country with pride, discipline and professionalism, allied to a couple of world-class talents in Younus Khan and Saeed Ajmal, can be a potent combination. It was far too much for England, who arrived in Dubai the No 1 team in rank but left with their reputation if not in tatters then certainly heavily dented. So ends a spectacular run for the England team under Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, the first defeat since the Caribbean in 2009, nine full series ago. It will not so much be the defeat as the manner of it that would have surprised a captain and team director who have always expressed great faith in their players. For Flower, a man who sets high standards, and was himself a wonderful player of spin, this faith has been sorely tested.

Where did England go wrong? In a candid interview, Flower admitted his team was under-prepared, especially compared with Pakistan, which had been through tough series against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh while England had been resting on its laurels, accepting the plaudits after a summer of successes. Clearly the balance between rest and play is a difficult one to manage, and in a modern game that demands much of the players, periods of rest are essential.

In the build-up to this series, though, Flower admitted that the England management had not got the balance right. It will not happen again, he said sternly. This failure in preparation, for which Flower said that he took responsibility, meant England began the series in second gear; bowled out for 192 on a flat pitch in the first Test, England was always playing catch-up after that. Flower is a stern taskmaster and nothing will hurt him more than the knowledge that his team did not give itself the best chance and, in an age when limitless resources are thrown at the national team, complacency is a serious charge.

The last time such accusations were thrown at an England team was in Australia in 2006-07, not coincidentally the last time England was whitewashed in a series. No doubt, future generations of England cricketers will not be thanking the class of 2012, as downtime is replaced by hard work at places such as Loughborough and warm-weather destinations, notably the camp that Strauss and Matt Prior attended before the present tour. The failure in the UAE has consigned any future three-month jollies to the dustbin.

Poor preparation begets poor performance and nowhere was this more obvious than in the failures of England’s batsmen. The scores tell their own story: 192, 160, 327, 72, 141 and 252 are poor returns, especially as at no stage did the selectors bow to the clamour to include an extra bowler.

The point of packing the batting, with Prior at No 7, is to bat the opposition into submission, to bury them under a mountain of runs, as they did in Australia last winter.

At no stage did they look like emulating those achievements. These were very different conditions, of course, but while Pakistan’s spinners enjoyed the occasional turn and bounce that the dry pitches produced – taking 48 of the 60 wickets to fall – they were a long way from being the traditional dust bowls of the sub-continent. The weather was simply too cool for that. In the circumstances, then, this must go down as one of the biggest failures of England batsmanship in Asia, more so perhaps even than Graham Gooch’s tour to India in 1993, also a whitewash, and a tour that descended into farce.

Given that none of Ian Bell, Eoin Morgan and Kevin Pietersen reached 40 in 29 innings on tour, there will be clamour for change. Three things should caution against that.

First, England remains a very good cricket team — possibly not quite as great as it thought it was (which in itself may be a useful outcome), but still very good nonetheless.

Second, neither India nor Sri Lanka possesses the same kind of quality spinners as do Pakistan, so things should get easier on the next two tours. England will simply have to learn from the error of its ways, rather than panic.

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