One collapse too many catches England cold
With an inevitability that comes only with Pakistani run-chases, England came tantalisingly close to achieving the impossible on Saturday afternoon. A searing late spell of swing bowling from James Anderson gave them fresh belief after Graeme Swann's habitual trickery had contributed three wickets and a run-out to the cause, but in the end, like a pair of cheque-book-chasing lawyers, they were always trying to defend the indefensible. The fact that they failed was a triumph for justice, because it left England's batsmen with no option but to front up for their gross negligence.
In consecutive Tests at Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and now The Oval, England have suffered tail-end collapses of six for 17, seven for 46, and now seven for 28. In addition, they've managed to lose their top six for 98 in the second innings at Trent Bridge, and their top seven for 94 in the first innings at The Oval. Only in the run-chase at Edgbaston, where Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott added 111 unbeaten runs to secure a nine-wicket victory, have England avoided a dose of the skids, and even then they lost Alastair Cook in the third over of the innings.
It has been a bowler's series, of that there is no question. Salman Butt, in his press conference on the penultimate evening, went so far as to suggest that the conditions his team had encountered were unplayable - a provocative statement that rather slipped under the radar amid all the excitement of that day's final session. Given the choice between tracks that serve up drama such as we've seen in Pakistan's two wins at Headingley and now The Oval, and the bat-dominated stodge that passes for Test cricket in too much of the world, there is no choice. More of this sort of thing, please.
But Butt has a point, up to a point, because if a team lacks enough batsmen with the requisite experience or application to cope with bowler-friendly conditions, even collapses such as we've been witnessing all summer start to become a bit passé. Until the peerless Mohammad Yousuf arrived to provide some much-needed knowhow, Pakistan's rookie top-order simply lacked the tools for survival. But even so, despite the traumas of two double-digit totals, they've still scraped together two of the three highest totals of the series to date, with Azhar Ali providing a brilliant example of how to learn from experience with his unbeaten 92 on Thursday.
England's batsmen, on the other hand, cannot pretend they've never played under leaden skies before, and therefore - even allowing for the majesty of Pakistan's seam attack - something has clearly been amiss in their collective performances. Despite starting with some aplomb with 354 in their first outing at Trent Bridge, their totals been heading in the wrong direction ever since, with scores of 262 for 9, 251, 233 and 222 in consecutive fully-formed innings. Those last two, at The Oval, came on the most batsman-friendly track so far, and the upshot was an almighty hurry-up today.
"None of us like losing, I certainly don't, so it's a bit of a kick in the teeth every time you lose a Test match," said Strauss. "We were outplayed. We lost five wickets in the first session of the game and then yesterday afternoon we lost more than five wickets. That cost us dearly and we need to make sure it doesn't happen again, and that we learn the lessons, because if you keep doing that then you're putting yourself under pressure unnecessarily, especially when it's the top order."
The puzzlement about England's performance this summer is that they've invariably found someone in each innings to front up as a proper Test batsman should - Eoin Morgan and Paul Collingwood managed a double-century stand in the first innings at Trent Bridge; Matt Prior has bulked out the lower-order on two crucial occasions, Cook made his seminal century before everything went wrong on Friday, and if Kevin Pietersen's 80 at Edgbaston owed far too much to good luck, then Trott's twin fifties in the same game were temperamentally superb.
In between whiles, however, England have not been at the races - conceivably they've been lulled by the expectation that Pakistan will invariably fare worse when their own turn comes to bat, but the more invidious charge is that they simply don't need to push themselves right now. Yesterday was the four-year anniversary of the abandoned Test at The Oval, and no fewer than four of the top six remain from that game - and but for Ian Bell's foot injury, that would doubtless be five.
The players who needed to prove points in this series have done so - Morgan at the first time of asking, Cook at the last - and every one of the seven candidates for the top order will be on that flight to Australia. In that respect, it's job done, which in hindsight has proven to be an unfortunate state of affairs, given that the job in hand is further from being wrapped up than it might have seemed at 2-0 up with two to play.
Nobody questions that England's batsmen have the bottle to succeed when required - least of all Strauss. "If you're asking: 'Are we bad players?' then I don't think that's true," he said. "We just haven't batted well in this game." But there is plenty reason to doubt their current drive, not least that of Pietersen, whose quest for his next Test century now stretching to 25 innings and counting.
One wonders what it will take for KP's career to reach the sort of make-or-break moment that Cook experienced in this game, and that Collingwood and Strauss have themselves experienced in the past, at Edgbaston and Napier in 2008 respectively. The threat of the axe concentrates the mind like nothing else, but given that Pietersen doesn't even have a county to fall back on in a bid to regain his form, it's a tactic that the ECB would not dare countenance.
It could of course be that Pakistan's bowlers are simply too good. "It's not my business to talk up the opposition," said Strauss when asked his opinion about his opponents, and it's certainly true that Saeed Ajmal's invisible doosra burrowed deep into England's psyche in this game. But are they really that much better than the Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel combo that England thwarted so gutsily in South Africa last winter? It's a moot point. The conditions may have been tougher in this series, but the collective pressure hasn't come close. Maybe, with a series decider looming, it will click back up a notch.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.