Thursday, 15 October 2015

Test and toil

Thursday, 15 October 2015
It would be fair to say that this match hasn't been the most thrilling example of test cricket. It has been a grind: a test of players' perseverance in the heat, of bowlers who toil away on a pitch with so little in it for both pace bowlers and spinners. Already, Pakistan have amassed a giant total: 523/8, spearheaded by 245 from Shoaib Malik, playing his first test for five years. Only cramp and fatigue could beat him, the hours at the crease finally taking their toll. Alongside Asad Shafiq (107) and Mohammad Hafeez (95) the damage was done, the batsmen in for the long haul while the opposition were left to be punished in the sun.

England though are setting themselves up for a similar response. So often the pressure of the scoreboard can see a side instantly crumble when they get their turn with the bat, the psychological effect of a large total and fatigue from so many overs in the field taking their effect. So far, at least, it has not been the case. England's new opening pair were successful on their first outing, making a rare century stand on the first attempt. Moeen might not have been as fluent as he can be - but bowling thirty overs will do that for you. The captain though led the way, playing a typical, calm, Alastair Cook innings - and just like Shoaib Malik, looking in it for the long haul. Rarely was he in any trouble, making his way to 168* at the end of day three. On the way, he passed 1000 runs for the calendar year as well. The troubles of the previous two years look firmly in the past.

For Ian Bell though, it felt like his problems were only continuing. Already on the first day he had dropped two catches - drops that proved highly costly, being of Hafeez and Shafiq. Somewhere in the background, the questions and rumours about his future in the side were getting louder. Lingering as well were the memories of the 2012 tour, where Bell made just 51 runs in six innings. The innings was a battle. The scoring rate was slow as he struggled to find his method of scoring runs against the spinner. Against Zulfiqar Babar, his strike rate was just eleven. But gradually things did improve. He found a way to rotate the strike, and in one innings managed to beat his total from 2012 - 63 runs, before falling to Wahab Riaz at the end of the day. His best form might still be far away, but this innings should have provided an important psychological boost.

For England's bowlers though, it was nothing but hard work. Ben Stokes did eventually end up with the very respectable figures of 4/57, though they mostly fell towards the end of the innings as a declaration approached (and the less said about his over of off-spin, the better). All the wickets fell to pace, as well as the two dropped catches and another almost-wicket, denied as Broad's foot overstepped the line. It's not the first time England have been denied by a no-ball this year, and it's a frustrating issue: firstly, as the umpires aren't calling many of the no-balls being bowled - often just checking when the wicket falls; but mostly because England are overstepping that line too often. The umpires should definitely do more, but it's an issue the bowlers need to resolve the most - because they are the ones who get punished.

But for the spinners, there was no reward at all. Adil Rashid finally made his test debut, a debut I have long been shouting for, but it hasn't been one to remember at all. With 0/163, Rashid is now the holder of a very unwanted record - the worst bowling figures by a test debutant. Bryce McGain, the fellow legspinner Rashid 'beat' on the list, never played another test - though Rashid will surely play the remainder of the series, and hopefully on pitches more receptive to any sort of bowling. When it all goes right, he provides a real threat - a valuable asset to a bowling attack, adding that element of mystery. As it was, Pakistan were comfortable. Rashid went at 4.79 an over, with no maidens, and Moeen Ali went at 4.03 with just two; Pakistan could not be contained. Maybe it might have gone better for Rashid had he been given that opportunity in the Caribbean at the start of the year; certainly it still looks like a missed chance, with him now making his debut on a pitch where any bowler would suffer. For now his debut is another chapter in the book of England's struggles with legspinners.

Really though, no bowler would be able to find much success on a pitch like this. While I still wouldn't rule out a dramatic England collapse (it is something they excel at, after all), the most likely result in two days time looks to be a draw. The bowlers are doing an admirable job keeping up the hard work - a special mention must also go to Wahab Riaz, who looked capable of making something happen if sometimes erratic. But right now there's little more they can do than keep up the hard work.

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