Strauss seeks consistency, Pakistan seek spark
All the talk this week has been of whitewashes, specifically the one that Ricky Ponting and his colleagues intend to inflict on England this winter. Right at this moment, however, it is Andrew Strauss and his men who are armed with the paintbrushes and pots of primer. With six consecutive Test wins already racked up this year, and a share of the series against Pakistan already ensured, the onus for England is to continue their momentum right through to the end of the summer, so that they can arrive in Brisbane in November with a record-equalling eight straight victories to back up their Ashes ambitions.
While Pakistan are in town, however, it's never wise to get too far ahead of the here-and-now because, as Strauss remembers well from the last time the two teams played in a Test match at The Oval, circumstances can change as quickly as the English weather. Back in 2006, an intriguingly poised contest was transformed into a crisis to rival the Gatting-Shakoor Rana stand-off at Faisalabad two decades earlier, as umpire Darrell Hair casually awarded five penalty runs against a Pakistan team whom he had unilaterally decided were guilty of ball tampering.
The row escalated to boardroom level from the very moment that Pakistan refused to take the field after tea on the fourth afternoon, and after several tense hours of diplomatic and not-so-diplomatic exchanges between Hair, Pakistan's captain Inzamam-ul-Haq, and various officials from the ECB, PCB and ICC, the match was eventually forfeited to give England a 3-0 series win. "It was like watching a train wreck really," recalled Strauss. "We knew that something pretty massive was brewing and it was something we had no ability to control."
Eight players in Wednesday's contest survive from that match - four on each team - but the prospect of a repeat scenario is remote in the extreme. On the one hand, Strauss is a more experienced leader than the stand-in skipper of four years ago; on the other hand, his counterpart Salman Butt is a more conciliatory figure than the intransigent Inzamam. There's time for Pakistan to fight back on the field through the excellence of their seam bowlers in particular, but they've rarely looked like sparking into life in the manner best epitomised, in the past, by the likes of Javed Miandad and Waqar Younis.
It's not as if they've been short of grist to the mill either. It's hard, for instance, to imagine Miandad letting an issue such as Stuart Broad's shy at Zulqarnain Haider pass without an inflammatory intervention, even less so after it transpired this week that that same throw might well have aggravated a finger injury that has now ruled Haider out of the rest of the series. That suggestion was quietly played down by the management - and Pakistan's spirit of conciliation is to be applauded in that regard - but for the sake of a competitive series, a bit more of the aggro of old would not go amiss.
The Broad incident remains notable all the same, because it came during England's most trying spell of the series to date, with Haider and the Pakistan tail making light of their capitulation to 72 all out in the first innings, and turning a likely innings defeat into a slender but defendable lead. Now, faced with an Oval wicket that is likely to be one of the truest surfaces of the series, and with the returning Mohammad Yousuf set to insert some much-needed backbone to Pakistan's batting, England know that this will in all likelihood be their stiffest examination of a misleadingly dominant summer. Strauss is determined that the frustrations of Edgbaston will not be allowed to take root again.
"There was a period where we didn't react as well as we could to the circumstances, but we make mistakes," said Strauss. "You're never going to get everything right over the course of a Test. There were situations where we probably did get a bit emotional and frustrated, and that's not a good place to be in terms of nailing your skills. But we learned our lessons from it and won the game by nine wickets, and we're in a pretty good place as a side because our guys are honest with each other, and are prepared to take it on the chin when we don't do well, and praise people when we do."
On that note, there was no escaping the fact that Broad had sailed too close to the wind at Edgbaston. "He admitted he did wrong," said Strauss. "He over-stepped the mark, he's got the punishment and from our point of view the case is closed, although if other people want to talk about it, that's their own business. We've all got to watch it, but Broady has generally been very good this year. There were some incidents in the past, but he's had his head on. He's bowled very well, but he's also been a pleasure to captain. I haven't got any real problems with him. We never want to see people doing that on a regular basis. If he did it again, there would be issues, but I don't think he will."
Speaking to Cricinfo in the aftermath of the Edgbaston Test, England's bowling coach David Saker had voiced his concerns about the "complacency" that had seeped into the attack on that third afternoon, and while Strauss did not feel that his player's standards had dropped quite that drastically, he nevertheless agreed that, with Australia looming large, the ability to deal with those periods when the opposition are in the ascendancy will be crucial to his team's survival Down Under.
"It was a timely lesson that you'll never have everything your own way," said Strauss. "Sometimes you'll have to do the hard yards to get on top of sides, and The Oval and Lord's are usually pretty good batting wickets. Overhead conditions play a part, but there may be a different style of match: runs on the board and scoreboard pressure, rather than ball nipping all over the place.
"There's certain areas we want to improve on, but in general we just want to continue producing consistent cricket," he added. "If you want to become one of the better or the best team in the world, you need to play well day in, day out and not have bad sessions, bad days and bad Test matches, because good sides will take advantage and not let you come back into the Test match. We've been pretty good on that this summer."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.