Pakistan perform like the Bangladesh of old
Anyone who witnessed that execrable contest at the SSC last week will agree that Test cricket is at its best when bowlers are backed by conditions that act as bait, and batsmen are forced to battle like salmon on the end of a hook. What took place on the first day at Edgbaston, however, was more akin to lobbing a stick of dynamite into a reservoir. It took a measure of skill for England's bowlers to land their projectiles in the right area, but as soon as they'd done so, the struggle was as good as over.
Twice in five days Pakistan have set new record lows for Test innings against England, having themselves triggered the current trend for double-figure dismissals by detonating Australia's batting for 88 at Headingley. The thrill of that contest, however, came in the manner in which the Aussies battled back for the remainder of the match, clawing at every half-chance going to end up a tantalising three wickets adrift. Pakistan, however, have already squandered five chances of varying degrees of difficulty in 34.2 overs of England's first innings. The prospect of a fightback is as insubstantial as Zulqarnain Haider's current Test average.
Five Tests have been completed in England this summer - and only one of them has so far been taken to five days. Incredibly, given that teams with the reputation of Australia and Pakistan have been in town, it is the ever-lampooned Bangladeshis who have put up the fiercest fight, with Tamim Iqbal's outrageously gung-ho century at Lord's provoking his team-mates into the sort of resistance that this series is now crying out for. Ironically, Pakistan set their stalls for survival in this contest with Azhar Ali and Imran Farhat recording two of the slowest ducks of all time, but the team simply lacked the class to translate their resistance into progress.
Mohammad Yousuf may yet be the man to inject Pakistan with some much-needed knowhow - his career average against England is 70, just two runs shy of his team-mates' grand total in this first innings. But as Tamim went on to demonstrate in a one-man show in Bangladesh's second Test at Old Trafford, a personal tour de force is irrelevant if your colleagues don't have the technique or temperament to survive.
Pakistan have been here before of course. In Sharjah back in 2002-03, they played the first of their now-habitual neutral series against Australia, and crumbled to twin scores of 59 and 53 in an ignominious second Test at Sharjah. Then as now, the feebleness of their batting disguised the enduring excellence of their seemingly unending production-line of fast bowling, with the finest spell of Shoaib Akhtar's career going unrewarded in the first Test in Colombo. Now as then, we must hope they will come again, just as they did to everyone's astonishment at Headingley last month. But the facts of the present make hugely unpalatable reading all the same.
"We've been doing this all our lives and we have to clean up our own mess," said a crestfallen captain, Salman Butt, who fronted up with the same sense of duty that he has shown throughout his brief tenure as captain, but whose authority is being eroded by the day - with Yousuf's formidable presence cramping him on the one hand, and his own series tally of 16 runs in three innings undermining him on the other. His decision to bat first in grim grey conditions was not his finest, either, even if, as an opening batsman, it did demonstrate an admirable willingness to lead his team from the front.
"It's been like this since we've come here, we haven't had one day with sunshine," he added. "This pitch will not change. Given these conditions the ball will keep on swinging, so the idea was to put some runs on the board and let the other side get them. It was a positive move, but it didn't happen for us. But they still bowled brilliantly, back-to-back performances require great efforts and that's what they did."
For England, it was simply business as usual, not least for Stuart Broad, who played here a fortnight ago for Nottinghamshire and picked up career-best figures of 8 for 52, before extending that recent ground record to a remarkable 12 for 90. "It was slow and hard to drive on, so if you created pressure it meant they had to play shots at balls that weren't there," he said. "They had a 24-ball nought and a 32-ball nought, so that tells you it was quite hard to score on, but also a testament to how we bowled and the disciplines we stuck to."
England, in fairness, were excellent insofar as they needed to be. Half-trackers were non-existent as the three seamers stuck to their Trent Bridge gameplan of containment for containment's sake, and a sixth consecutive Test victory is surely now an inevitability. "We're putting huge amounts of pressure on the Pakistan batting line-up," said Broad. "We're bowling fantastically well, and we've had slightly cloudy conditions which have suited us. We've not given them a sniff."
But for the good of Test cricket, and even for England's own long-term benefit, a bit more resistance from Pakistan would not go amiss. While stalemates of the SSC variety are the greatest menace to the game, a fundamental lack of competitivity runs a close second. Bangladesh have been accused of cheapening Test cricket for years, but at least in the last few seasons they have learned the necessary application to take a game the full distance. Pakistan on the other hand, like West Indies, seem worryingly intent on unlearning those same disciplines, and given the mighty heritage of that pair in particular, it is a distinctly unnerving development.
If Edgbaston's half-built and half-full ground had similar foundations to the Pakistan team, then outright demolition would be the only viable option. Broad, however, scoffed at the notion that life was getting too cushy for him and his team. "As the opposition I don't have any sympathy," he said. "English fans are very supportive of their teams, so I hope people wouldn't lose interest because we are dominating.
"I'm sure an Australian public wouldn't lose interest when their team was winning comprehensively in the 1990s," he added. "But it's important that we continue to play exciting cricket. The Trent Bridge Test was a great Test to watch. If you batted well there were runs to be scored, but if you bowled in the final third you were in with a chance. The feedback I've got from friends and family is that it's been a good series to watch, and long may that continue."
It has certainly been compelling viewing so far, but the narrative could do with another twist sometime soon.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.