Wednesday, 25 August 2010

ENGLAND v PAKISTAN - 3rd Test: The Oval 2010

The cogs turning in Andrew Strauss' head
After a 12 hour shift at work and the night before the 4th Test starts at Lord's, it seems as though this would be a good time to write my report on the 3rd Test at the Oval. Cast your minds back to the last two games, where Pakistan demonstrated the skills of a poor school boy side in comparison with England's ruthless ability. I hope you can forgive me for already pondering about certain lines that I could include in this article as I was trapped in complacency, thinking that lightning could strike three times.  Let's face it, anyway... You wouldn't bet against it.  However, cricket has proved, once again, that it can be a funny old game, so my original plans of laying into Pakistan for being weak, inexperienced and brittle have gone out the window.

Let's start at the beginning.  England captain, Andrew Strauss, duly won the toss and elected to bat, on what looked like a typically flat Oval wicket.  England, having a good record of late on this ground, would have been keen to get off to a solid start, with the skipper himself and the questionable Alistair Cook opening up for England as usual.  However, Mohammad Asif, Pakistan's most consistent bowler this tour, had other plans, dismissing Cook in the second over caught behind for 6.  Pakistan, on song for once, continued to rip through the top and middle order that morning and reduced the hosts to 94-7.  Matt Prior then proved why he should be England's top choice keeper/batsman for The Ashes with a battling 84 not out, bumping England up to 233 after 62.3 overs.  Debutant, Wahab Riaz, took 5-63 and though jubilant in celebration, could not match up to Zulqurnain Haider's half century party, which included floor kissing, helmet raising, arms aloofing and grinning like a cheshire cat to the dressing room and the world media.

Pakistan's first innings began strongly with the first pair, Farhat and Hameed putting on 48 for the first wicket.  The first eight Pakistani batsman made it into double figures, implying that they got in and then could not capitalise.  The Pakistan Cricket Board must have been glad that they decided to eat their words on the lifetime ban on Mohammad Yousuf, when he made a useful 56 before getting out caught and bowled to Graeme Swann.  Azhar Ali missed out on his maiden test hundred with an unbeaten 92, as the Pakistan tail crumbled around him. Pakistan were eventually dismissed for 308 after 100.2 overs giving them a first innings lead of 75.

It was good to see England under a little bit of pressure going into their second innings, especially as Strauss departed early for 4 in the first over.  Finally, after so much pain and grief, Alistair Cook fought to make his 13th Test hundred and almost certainly booked his ticket to Australia this winter.  The secret to his success? "I went out there and just tried to hit the ball" Cook commented. Simple game, cricket is. The Essex man went to his hundred in an extremely strange fashion, when Asif, obviously watching my beautiful throwing technique, lobbed the ball over the keeper's head for four, just after Cook had patted it down the pitch just moments before.  Rather disappointingly, the term "brittle" has started to apply to England as well as Pakistan, because, despite Cook's ton, nobody else made any serious runs and England were suddenly bowled out for 222 after 77 overs with the last six batsmen failing to make it into double figures.

Now, Pakistan smelling blood were set a low target of 148 runs to win.  England, in particular, know how low targets can be tricky to chase, and having bowled out Pakistan for under a hundred twice in this series already, there was still some hope for an England win.  Hameed failed first ball, his game ending by another James Anderson swinger, when Pakistan were on only 5.  Farhat and captain Butt got Pakistan up to 57 before the second wicket was taken by Swann.  However, Pakistan made it fairly easily over the line without too much trouble with 4 wickets in hand after 41.4 overs.  I never thought I'd be writing: Pakistan win by four wickets.

On balance, I think it can be said that England losing is probably a good thing with The Ashes in mind.  Yes, it would be nice for a series whitewash, but England cannot afford to become lazy and complacent just before such an important tour.  This loss just might give England a good kick up the backside and remind them that cricket can be a difficult game at times, especially down under, where cricket can be described as anything but easy.  Looking ahead to the next Test, starting tomorrow at the home of cricket, England will want to learn from as many lessons as possible, as their next test will be somewhat sterner against the wounded animal that is Australia.

Monday, 16 August 2010

ENGLAND v PAKISTAN - 2nd Test: Edgbaston 2010

Broad vents his frustration as Haider and Ajmal defy England
After a hammering at Trent Bridge in the 1st Test, cricket fans, pundits and former players alike were looking to see if this relatively inexperienced Pakistan team has a bit of "ticker", as the Australians like to put it.  Pakistan had a glorious opportunity to bounce back, fight hard and show the world they are no pushover, and unfortunately for them, England completely wiped the floor with them... Again.

It started badly and got worse from there.  After winning the toss and electing to bat, Pakistan slumped to 36-6 with the top four all failing to make it to double figures.  Anderson gave all the batsmen the run-around with his perilous swing bowling, swinging the Dukes ball in, out, like a banana, all over the place.  They seemed absolutely clueless to him yet again and eventually were all out for 72 after only 39.3 overs, Broad and Anderson picking up 4 wickets apiece.

England's reply started reasonably solidly with much focus on Alistair Cook, whose form has been questionable of late.  The openers put on 44 for the first wicket before Cook ballooned a short ball from Asif to the awaiting hands of Umar Akmal at second slip.  Pietersen, another one of England's under-achievers of recent times, top scored with 80 and Trott making a nice 55 before the tail collapsed and England were all out for 251 after 83.1 overs.

Pakistan, looking to make amends in their second innings, started poorly again with Butt departing for 0 in the 3rd over.  Farhat made 29, Malik hit 3 and with the score on 82-5 in came debutant Zulqarnain Haider on a King Pair to face an on-song Swann.  His heart must have been in his throat as the ball seemed to thunder into his pad and was given out first ball, and an exuberant England celebrated.  One of the joys of this series has been the use of the referral system, and has shown at key times, when used correctly, umpires have reversed their decisions to the game's benefit.  This was one of those occasions as Haider referred the decision and the third-umpire deemed it not out.  Haider then went on to play a sublime innings and knocked brilliant 88 on debut, frustrating England so much that Broad decided to hurl the ball at him of his follow through and was promptly fined half of his match fee.  Haider was supported extremely well by Saeed Ajmal who, though in the team primarily for his bowling, scored his maiden Test half century.  Pakistan ended up on 296 with Swann finishing with career-best figures of 6-65.

So, England needing only 118 to secure victory, thoughts may have turned to another occasion when England almost failed to chase a low total in 2005, that time against Australia where 127 seemed a tall order.  However, after losing Cook again early in the innings, the professionalism of Strauss and Trott carried England over the line with 9 wickets to spare.

Now for the proper analysis...  Despite Andrew Strauss claiming that the England camp are not thinking about the Ashes at this point,  the captain at the very least must be thinking about what the best 4-pronged bowling attack against Australia will be, what the best batting line-up will be, will Trott remain at number 3? will Ian Bell regain his position in the side after injury? And will Eoin Morgan replicate his form down under?  There are so many questions that need answering before the Ashes and although it may be too soon to tell what the plans are exactly, in the back of all our minds, we all want to know as soon as possible!

Another topic under discussion is the use of James Anderson.  Pitches down under are notoriously hard and fast with very little room for swing.  Combined with a Kookaburra ball, which has a thinner seam and loses its shine much quicker than the English Dukes ball, will Anderson's "Samsonite Locks" be taken away from him?  One hopes that despite swing being his most potent weapon, he will be hoping to out-think batsmen in other ways, pace possibly being one of them, as he can consistently bowl at over 90 mph.

In terms of prepation for the Ashes, can it be argued that Pakistan are not helping us prepare in the best possible way for the winter tour?  Yes it's nice to stuff any team by the margins we are doing so, but England have hardly had to struggle in this series, something which they will have to get used to against Australia.  If England have a bad day against the Aussies then I can see the media putting some of it down to the previous series as England will have forgotten what it is like to play under pressure.  The Aussies will come at us hard, as they hate not being the holders, and on their home turf it will be an opportunity to re-create the tour of 2006/07 and embarrass the Poms again.  They say never underestimate the power of a wounded animal, and though I'm sure England won't be complacent against Australia, I hope they are prepared to be hit hard in a few months time.

Watch this space for a report and analysis on the 3rd Test at The Oval coming soon!