October 19, 2015

A failure to pluck victory from the duodenum of a draw

How England showed immense mental and physical fortitude in Abu Dhabi, first in not losing, then in coming within a few minutes and boundaries of winning

Misbah-ul-Haq was bowled after he was transfixed by Jos Buttler's atrocious footwear © Associated Press

Fourteen sessions of turgid gloop, followed by two hours of certifiably bonkers mayhem, almost gave England one of their most extraordinary Test triumphs. They were denied, ultimately, by the cruel onset of Evening, that light-stealing literal spoilsport, which fell, as it so often does, bang on schedule. If only the sun had done the decent thing and held its cocky fire for a few minutes, then Alastair Cook and his team could have completed a victory that, when Pakistan were pootling along at 499 for 4 on day two, seemed about as likely as Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower recording a cover version of the classic '80s duet "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" as a novelty Christmas single.

Thereafter, England were excellent, led by Cook's colossal, unyielding, unvarying megalith of high-resistance accumulative concentration, a physical and mental batting ultramarathon of staggering fortitude. Adil Rashid completed what, in the pre-Warne days, might have been considered the archetypal identikit legspinner's Test, mutating from exploitable weak link to match-breaking wizard. Anderson Andersoned, Moeen tweaked hard, and England almost defied the pitch, the heat, precedent, probability and the harrowing memories of 2012.

As well as the traditional passage of time bringing that inconvenient darkness, there were other factors in England's narrow failure to pluck Victory from somewhere around the duodenum of A Draw.

Most pertinently, the match was played on a morose failure of a pitch that could have sucked the optimism from a kids' TV presenter - 22 yards of yawn that suited neither England nor Pakistan. Nor cricket. Nor humanity in general. Palaeontologists may wish to reconsider their claims that dinosaurs were wiped out by a dodgy asteroid giving the world the big kaboom, and investigate instead whether they, in fact, simply started playing a cricket match on the Abu Dhabi pitch, and collectively lost the will to live.

It was a putridly dim surface that produced an awful 93% of a Test match, redeemed undeservedly by that zany outbreak of panic batting in the face of Rashid and Moeen's tempting, skilful tweakery. When Younis and Misbah, no one's idea of youthful inexperience, thrash their wickets away, it is clear that a team is choking, and choking hard. Perhaps Pakistan's batting line-up is lacking in experience, and needs a smattering of 50-year-olds to keep the younger heads cool.

England were also scuppered by the sluggish over rate. Not the sluggish over rate by Pakistan in the final session - cricket long since gave up its barely discernible battle against over-rate deflation, and no team would voluntarily hasten its own demise - but by England in the afternoon. They bowled 25 overs between lunch and tea (10 of them by spinners), which suggested a team that had accepted the inevitability of a draw in the desert heat, rather than one hustling in an effort to force a near-impossible victory. An easily rectifiable one-percenter.

They might also regret a lack of initiative in their batting. They had battled magnificently to regain parity, then take control. Having manoeuvred and ground their way into a position from where they could almost certainly not lose - they overtook Pakistan's score with five wickets in hand, Cook and Stokes at the crease, and little over three and a half sessions to play - England could have risked a little for a potentially massive gain.

Alastair Cook and his team could have completed a victory that, when Pakistan were pootling along at 499 for 4 on day two, seemed about as likely as Kevin Pietersen and Andy Flower recording a cover version of "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" as a novelty Christmas single

The draining heat and Mogadon surface worked against run-scoring rapidity, but after Cook took England into the lead with his 18th boundary, in the 182nd over, they scored only 72 more in 24 overs. The 9.3 overs batted at the start of day five, for the addition of 29 runs, did nothing to make England safer. They were already safe. But was that the best use of time in pursuit of victory? Was there a pursuit of victory?

These are minor quibbles, especially in the context of the fact that, last time England played in the UAE, they finished a mere four Tests away from winning the three-match series. And the fact that everything pointed towards nothing happening. They were, essentially, magnificent from the start of their first innings, with collective and individual performances that bode well for their short-term and long-term future. They had almost no chance of winning, yet almost won. But for all their mental and physical fortitude, first in not losing, then in coming within a few minutes and boundaries of winning, once they had forced themselves into a position from which victory had unexpectedly become possible, they did not maximise that chance of victory.

Nevertheless, there should be joy unconfined across the land that Rashid had his success, after the kind of debut innings that could crush a player. Since Tommy Greenhough's 5 for 35 against India at Lord's in 1959, not only have English leggies failed to register any five-fors, but their only two four-wicket innings were 4 for 132 by Bob Barber in an Edgbaston win over New Zealand in 1965, and 4 for 163 by Ian Salisbury in an innings defeat in Guyana in 1993-94.

Salisbury himself took five wickets in his debut match, in 1992, but spent most of the rest of his England career getting the wrong bit of the scoreboard moving, and proving quite how difficult legspin is. Hopefully Rashid will fare better. He already has a reasonable case for being England's greatest Test leggie for 50 years, which is admittedly not the most feverishly contested of titles (ranking somewhere alongside Most Loquacious Brick).

The current legspin standard-bearer, Yasir Shah, should return for Pakistan after his badly timed / expertly judged back spasm. Even if Dubai provides a pitch to rival the Abu Dhabi abomination, the cricket should at least be more interesting. Probably not as interesting as the last session on Saturday. But if it managed to be less interesting than the cricketing dirge that preceded that, it will in its way be one of the most remarkable achievements of modern cricket history.

Andy Zaltzman is a stand-up comedian, a regular on BBC Radio 4, and a writer

Comments