Can England really be that bad again?
As Senna the Soothsayer used to say in Up Pompeii, “Woe, woe, and thrice woe!” Except that she was usually wrong, whereas it is the only sensible reaction to England's dismal performance in the first Test against Pakistan, in Dubai.
The bowlers have little to be ashamed of: on a pitch of that quality, keeping Pakistan to under 350 was a pretty decent showing, and most of them showed at least some fight with the bat.
But the batsmen! In the first innings, Matt Prior showed what could be done by someone prepared to be watchful and play with care – which doesn't mean no boundary-hitting, just that you only attempt the biggish shot when it is properly on and there aren't fielders where you want to put the ball. Jonathan Trott in the second innings looked to have the right idea but was not able to keep it going.
Those glimpses apart, the top seven can be glad this is not the British Army in the First World War, or they would have been lined up against a wall today and shot for gormlessness in the face of the enemy. Granted, Umar Gul and Saeed Ajmal are very good bowlers, but there is little need to help them out by wrapping your wicket in fancy paper, tying a ribbon round it and presenting it to them in a gesture of wild generosity.
However, I am not yet drawing any conclusions. England not only talk the talk about bouncing back, but have been walking the walk as well. They have won the Tests immediately following each of their last four losses, at least two of which have been as abject as this one. It is an impressive record of reaction to defeat: any assessment of their likely chances in the next game have to take that into account.
And it is hard to believe that they will be quite as bad next time round. They have all played enough cricket to know what they are supposed to be doing, even if only a couple of them even gave a hint of such knowledge on this occasion. This is whistling to keep one's spirits up, to be sure, but eternal optimism is the hallmark of the cricket fan – at least until it becomes horribly apparent that the team is in fact dreadful and one just has to start finding humour in their haplessness.
Don't get me wrong. I am in no way trying to belittle what Pakistan achieved, nor am I suggesting that they don't go into the next match as deserved favourites. This was my first viewing of them since the unfortunate events in England and they look a good unit. They are well led and have some outstanding bowling. I wouldn't say that their batting line-up is world-beating, but it is equally apparent that it isn't short of character or competence.
But, as with England, I'm not going to draw firm conclusions from one match. There is no way of knowing how Pakistan will react to thrashing the world No. 1 team until they play the next game. I am not talking about Pakistan's famed inconsistency – there is not all that much recent evidence of it, after all – but they are talking up the victory in a way ominously familiar to England supporters. England have been known to exhibit cup-final syndrome, following an outstanding win with a lax, overconfident performance next time out, and there's no guarantee that Pakistan won't succumb to the same complacence.
If you want to crow about how brilliant Pakistan are and how a team as awful as England does not deserve its ranking, it might be as well to have the grace to wait until that suspicion is confirmed by the match in Abu Dhabi.