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As I write, Pakistan and England are hours away from resuming a rivalry that has sparked some of our great sport’s most cantankerous cricket and least savoury squabbles. This time, hopefully, tempers will be tempered, and the cricket will not be an incidental curtain raiser to the controversy.
Provided that the Gulf pitches are not unremittingly somnolent ‒ and they have had a tendency to display the spritely vigour of a hypnotised and hibernating walrus ‒ the cricket should be compelling. Pakistan have been stable and steady, if not resurgent, and are unbeaten in six series since the legal blooper at Lord’s, although of those series, only one was against a team ranked in the top five in the world (a not-especially-thrilling nil-nil draw with South Africa in the Gulf late in 2010, the highlights of which have not been challenging the top of the DVD bestseller charts).
England, meanwhile, have had a prolonged Test break after a nine-month period in which they annihilated two of their greatest rivals. For the previous couple of years, England had veered between brilliance and debacle, as if they had read Rudyard Kipling’s smash-hit poem “If”, taken on board his suggestion that they should seek to treat the two impostors Triumph and Disaster just the same, and therefore attempted to spend plenty of quality time with both of them in turn. They then decided that Triumph was the preferable impostor to hang around with, and have since scaled peaks of performance dominance untouched by English cricketers for generations.
This dominance has been founded principally on high-class swing bowling ‒ which will be a less potent force in the billionaires’ sandpit that is Dubai ‒ supported by a batting line-up that has pulled off one of the most startling collective improvements of recent times, feeding off each other’s successes and confidence like lions at an all-you-can-eat zebra buffet.
Some stats: In England’s three major series before last winter’s Ashes (v Australia in 2009, South Africa in 2009-10, and Pakistan in 2010), only Jonathan Trott averaged over 38, with Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen below 30. In England’s three major series after that (Ashes 2010-11, and against Sri Lanka and India last summer), five of England’s regular top seven have averaged over 50, with Cook and Ian Bell close to 100. Were they underachieving wildly before, or are they overachieving wildly now? Probably a little bit of both. This year should provide a reasonably reliable answer, and Pakistan in the UAE should offer a stern challenge for a side that is reaching for greatness.
The official Confectionery Stall series prediction: England to win 1-0, provided they are not distracted by wondering how and why Dubai came to be full of so many empty skyscrapers. Or scuppered by the wiles of Saeed Ajmal. Or neutered by the heat and pitches. Or about to embark on a startling collective dis-improvement. Or possessed by a sudden urge to abandon the seven-batsman-four-bowler strategy that has served them so well. In which case, they will win 2-1. Possibly. Or it might be 1-1. Depending on what happens, and who does what, and when they do it.
One to watch (England): Monty Panesar He has been out of the England side for so long that it is easy to forget that Panesar was once much more than a bizarrely (and very intermittently) stylish No. 11 batsman, who in effect won the 2009 Ashes single-handedly. He was for a couple of years, against everyone other than India, a bowler of skill and penetration, and England’s most consistently effective spinner since Derek Underwood. He was then surpassed by the new England’s most consistently effective spinner since Derek Underwood, Graeme Swann.
Panesar is 29, with 125 Test and 500 first-class wickets under his specialist belt. With away series in the UAE, Sri Lanka and India, 2012 is a good year for him to be entering his tweaking prime. (Although his record in Tests in Asia is hopeless.) (But those Tests were quite a long time ago now.) (And England might not pick him anyway.) (Predictive punditry is pointless.) (What am I doing with my life?)
One to watch (Pakistan): Azhar Ali Azhar Ali is a throwback, a one-man war against 21st-century batting fripperies, a defiant protector of the coaching manual. Of the 55 top-seven batsmen who have played ten Tests this decade, Azhar has the second slowest scoring rate, behind only Tharanga Paranavitana. Throughout his 18-Test career, Azhar has shown defiance, patience, and a willingness not to edge the first available outswinger to the slips that some more celebrated batsmen around the world would do well to emulate. He has the classical style and methodical approach of a 1950s cricketer (although it should be noted that his strike rate of 39 runs per 100 balls faced would, by 1950s standards, have made him something of a reckless cavalier). I find him quite fascinating to watch. I would not want all batsmen to play like Azhar Ali, but I do want some batsmen to play like Azhar Ali. Including Azhar Ali.
(Warning for neutral spectators: four of Pakistan’s current top six are in the Eight Slowest Test Batsmen of the Decade list. Whether that is a negative warning or a positive warning is up to you.)
Extras I will write more about India’s statistically staggering disintegration next time. I have not enjoyed watching this cricketingly-macabre series, for all Australia’s excellence with the ball, and Warner’s thermonuclear innings in Perth. For a man recently viewed as a Twenty20 specialist, he has played two of the best innings of the decade in his first five Tests, which he, the baggy green selectors, and the whole of Baggy Greenland must be quite excited about. Maybe Pakistan should unleash Azhar Ali in their next T20s.
Most players and teams eventually decline before finally departing the scene, but few have done so as precipitously as Dhoni’s India. A year ago they had won several Tests by chasing down testing totals with skill and resilience. They had won in England, drawn in South Africa, and beaten Australia twice. They were about to successfully withstand arguably the most-high pressure cricketing campaign of all time. They were a good team, and a tough one. Now they are neither of those. They have responded to adversity in England and Australia by fighting like cornered tigers ‒ but tigers which, once cornered, have been shot at point-blank range and turned into fetching fireside rugs.
At least if India want to seek inspiration from a team that has emerged rapidly from an apparently long-term slump, they need only to knock on the home dressing room door and ask for a cup of tea and a chat.
Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on the BBC Radio 4, and a writerFeeds: Andy Zaltzman
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Andy Zaltzman was born in obscurity in 1974. He has been a sporadically-acclaimed stand-up comedian since 1999, and has appeared regularly on BBC Radio 4. He is currently one half of TimesOnline's hit satirical podcast The Bugle, alongside John Oliver. Zaltzman's love of cricket outshone his aptitude for the game by a humiliating margin. He once scored 6 in 75 minutes in an Under-15 match, and failed to hit a six between the ages of 9 and 23. He would have been ideally suited to Tests, had not a congenital defect left him unable to play the game to anything above genuine village standard. He writes the Confectionery Stall blog on Cricinfo.