Fluent Prior masks batting frailties
A scrap is what England have secretly been yearning for all series, and a scrap is what they are in right now, after a wasteful first-day performance at The Oval allowed Pakistan to claim the upper hand in a manner not dissimilar to their incredible heist against Australia at Headingley last month.
That England pulled themselves out of a nosedive at 94 for 7, where the Aussies had continued to plummet to 88 all out, owed everything to a restorative stand between Matt Prior and Stuart Broad, two feisty cricketers with the sort of mongrel streak that will be invaluable Down Under later this year. But the fact that England allowed themselves to get into such a mess in the first place will be of far greater concern to the team strategists.
"Any time you win the toss on what looks like a good batting deck, it's not the ideal position you'd want to be in," admitted Prior at the close. "It wasn't expected, and we're obviously below par, but to see the side to a semi-reasonable score was a real good feeling. Everything depends on how we come in in the morning. We have huge amount of belief in our bowlers, that they can come back, fight hard, and get us back in the game by sticking to our plans."
For all Prior's confidence, it's not as if the collapse came as a complete surprise, because Pakistan's seam bowlers have been exemplary all summer long. Mohammad Asif churns through his overs in a manner that somehow comes across as both menacing and long-suffering all at the same time, while Mohammad Amir and now the debutant Wahab Riaz zip and sling their offerings with sharp hostility from an unfamiliar left-arm line. Backed up at last by catching that, with the honourable exception of Mohammad Yousuf, was befitting of a Test match, they caught England cold under the same sort of cloud cover that had scuppered their own ambitions at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston.
"By the end of the day it looked a good wicket," added Prior, "but we've seen all series that the minute the clouds come over it seems a different proposition altogether - seaming around, and nipping a bit quicker. But this unit is all about the team. It's been Colly [Collingwood] in the past, Morgs [Morgan] in the past, KP plenty of times. We now have a team that, in any situation, someone will put their hand up and perform."
Impressively though Prior and Broad fought, however, the current scenario is somewhat different to the one that England had envisaged when talking up the likelihood of a stronger Pakistan challenge in this match. The Oval is renowned as the best batting track in the country - "It is a batting paradise and I have heard a lot about it," said an enthusiastic Wahab at the close - and if this game was to be a challenge, then it was surely going to be a high-scoring battle of wits between two attacks unused to the conditions conspiring against them.
Instead, England's innings was a continuation of the same old frailties that have been largely masked by the ineptitude of Pakistan's top-order. They have passed 300 only once in the series so far, and that total of 354 at Trent Bridge owed everything to the only truly substantial partnership posted by either side - Morgan and Collingwood's 219-run stand for the fifth wicket. The rest have dealt largely in scraps, not least Alastair Cook, whose much-vaunted temperament looked as ropey as his technique in an agonising seven-ball stay this morning. In fretting about what might happen to their excellent bowlers when the sun shines in Brisbane, the focus has been deflected from an uncomfortably unproductive top six.
Aside from Cook, everyone has had their moments in this series - Morgan made his century in Nottingham, Pietersen made a chancy 80 in Birmingham, Jonathan Trott chipped in with a brace of fifties in the same game while Strauss has shown fluent form without kicking on - but partnerships have been a rarity. It says something about the state of an apparently one-sided series that a debutant such as Wahab could bound into his end-of-play press conference with the same sort of confidence that he showed in his run-up, and offer next to no deference to a side that has put his team-mates on the canvas with more than a day to spare in consecutive games.
"The way we have been bowling throughout this summer, we have bowled to the Australians and to England, and none of the top order has scored," said Wahab. "England is a good team but today was our day. My confidence level was high always, we bowled well and we got them. Today I just wrapped them up."
The calculated aggression with which Yasir Hameed relaunched his Test career ensured that Pakistan did not finish the day as they had started too many of their previous innings this series, grinding through the overs with close catchers lurking in every corner, even though James Anderson's late breakthrough did reawaken the possibility of further batting jitters on the second morning. Nevertheless, that ought not to be England's most pressing concern right now, because - aside from one blip on that third day at Edgbaston - they know they can trust their attack to fulfil their duties. Right at this moment, the same cannot be said of the batting.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.