Sunday, 25 October 2015

The battle is on

Sunday, 25 October 2015
England enter the fifth day of the second test facing a battle to survive. Seven wickets stand between Pakistan and victory, with England set a nominal target of 491 runs. Already the captain has been dismissed, troubled by injury. Gone too is his opening partner, Moeen Ali, and the man at first drop, Ian Bell. It's a tough final day ahead.

It will be a tough challenge, but maybe they could do it and survive. Joe Root has already dug in with an overnight score of 59*, and maybe he could continue his one-man mission for England well into the final day. His hot streak from the summer doesn't seem to be ending just yet, and he's shown an ability to shape matches by himself before. Jonny Bairstow is coming off the summer of his life, and though he's still yet to really deliver at test level, he's shown some signs of form on this tour so far. Ben Stokes is a fighter. Jos Buttler must be due a score soon. Adil Rashid is a good player of spin, and having a man with ten first class centuries batting at number eight can only be a good thing in a situation like this. Broad and Wood too are far from being mugs with the bat in hand, and James Anderson is after all a test saving hero - Cardiff, 2009, will be clung on to for as long as possible. England saved a match with six wickets to spare on the final day in New Zealand in 2013, and came so close to doing so with five to spare against Sri Lanka last year.

But probably the more likely scenario is the other one. Pakistan have the bowling attack to cause problems. Wahab Riaz, the left armer, bowling quickly and constantly looking a threat. Yasir Shah bowling legspin on a fifth day pitch. Both coming off the back of four wickets in the first innings. Root can't score runs every innings, and left arm quicks have often been his undoing. Bairstow remains unproven in test matches, his bottom hand is too often taking over, and he's not looked at ease against spin. Stokes had a fifty in the last match, but otherwise has struggled for runs; while Buttler's place in the side is on the line. Rashid is in only his second test match, and Broad, Wood, and Anderson aren't batsmen to rely upon.

The first innings though was the one that got them into trouble. It was another dramatic collapse, from 206/3 to 242 all out. Seven wickets, 36 runs. Root got out, and the whole team seemed to follow - too many falling with rash shots. It's been a problem throughout the year - who gets the runs when Cook and Root are out? Others have had their moments - and Stokes especially has played some brilliant innings this year - but there's not anyone else at the moment who fills you with the confidence that they will deliver on a consistent basis.

Meanwhile, the pressure mounts on those who aren't delivering. I'm a massive fan of Ian Bell, and will always maintain that he is one of my absolute favourite players to watch when on song, but at times in this series he has been a struggle to watch. Off the back of a poor summer, the calls for his drop and the whispers surrounding his future have got louder and louder. He has, at least, been grinding out runs on this tour - a score of 63 in the first innings that wasn't fluent, but that he scored nonetheless, and here he made 46 before a late dismissal. It might just be enough to save him, as consistency in selection so often wins out.

But with Buttler it may be a different story. Changing a wicketkeeper is always a big call, and especially when Bairstow hasn't made the mountains of runs that would really push for the decision to be made. But waiting in the wings is James Taylor, a man up there with Root as one of England's best players of spin bowling, who made the runs in the ODIs against Australia and showed his form in the warm up matches. Last year, everything Buttler touched seemed to turn to gold - that fantastic ODI century against Sri Lanka followed by immediate success in the test team. This year his form has dipped, and since hitting a century in the ODIs against New Zealand he's barely had a significant innings and looks bereft of confidence. A dropped catch and a chance going between him and first slip haven't helped his cause either. Being an ever-present in all three formats for England, I personally would have rested him from the ODI series against Australia from the start - a proper period of rest ahead of a tough winter schedule, having a chance to recharge. Perhaps he could then have finished off the season with Lancashire to get his eye in again before going on tour. Instead it seemed a bit of a half-measure, an afterthought, and one that made it just look like he was dropped from the side.

Of course, we shouldn't be getting ahead of ourselves with this England team, heaping the expectations on when many of them are still newcomers to cricket in this part of the world. Before the tour, I was expecting defeat - and just hoping the response wouldn't be too harsh on them when it happened. It's not that I'm excessively pessimistic, just that away wins at the moment are like gold dust, and Pakistan have made the UAE their fortress. Many teams have travelled to the UAE and come back with nothing, and many England teams have faced Pakistan away and come back with nothing. England's final day performance in the first test just really got the hopes up. And it's the frustration that a batting collapse cost them so badly again.

Pakistan have of course been excellent. Misbah with a century in the first innings and a fifty in the second, Younis Khan with a fifty in the first and a century in the second (passing 9000 test runs in the process); several others chipping in with fifties along the way. They've put the pressure of the scoreboard on England, batted them out of the game, whilst the bowlers have delivered too.

Now the challenge for England is to survive. It's not an impossible task, but it's one they will really have to fight for.

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