Pressure on England to arrest collapse of confidence
Whether last week's result at The Oval was attributable to poor batting from England or outstanding bowling from Pakistan - and the truth invariably lies somewhere in between - it is a fact nonetheless that England's dominance in this series, taken somewhat for granted as they coasted to a 2-0 lead with a nine-wicket win in the second Test at Edgbaston, is nowhere near as absolute as it might have once appeared. In fact, as the series finale looms at an overcast (and therefore swing-friendly) Lord's, it might even be described as precarious.
Thanks to an ever-diminishing series of team totals, which have drifted downwards from a decent 354 in the first Test at Trent Bridge to an insubstantial 222 at The Oval, the focus has fallen on England's batsmen to a degree not seen since they crashed to 102 all out at Headingley in the penultimate Test against Australia last summer. Then, of course, they battled back from a series-squaring innings defeat to claim the Ashes one match later with a hefty victory at The Oval, and all was forgiven. The challenge now, in England's final Test before the squad to tour Down Under is finalised, is to re-harness those powers of bouncebackability.
"It certainly wasn't the worst game we've had since I took charge," said England's captain, Andrew Strauss. "We've had some poor performances in the past, but we lost the game and that was disappointing because we should have been better than that. There are lessons to be learnt from The Oval and there's a pretty strong determination within the group to prove that that was a one-off and that we're better than we showed [in that match]. That's a pretty good state of mind to have, because generally, when we've had that state of mind, we've done well."
England, to be fair, have long had a pretty healthy record in that regard. It wasn't until the penultimate year of Michael Vaughan's reign, against India in 2007, that he relinquished his record of following every Test defeat with a victory at the next attempt, and while Andrew Strauss hasn't quite attained those standards, he's nevertheless started pretty healthily with a draw and two victories following his three previous defeats as England captain.
However, given that England bowled Pakistan out for 80 and 72 in the first two Tests at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, last week's defeat has to rate as the most unexpected yet of Strauss's captaincy career - even ahead of the infamous 51 all out in Sabina Park 18 months ago, for the speed of that second-innings capitulation was at least in keeping with the pervading mood of crisis that had gripped the England squad since the falling-out between Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores. The Oval reversal, on the other hand, has awakened issues that had been allowed to pass unnoticed during a misleadingly comfortable run of six Test wins in a row - and need to be addressed rather urgently.
"We haven't batted brilliantly, but it's hard to score 500 on a pitch that's doing a lot," said Strauss. "There was less excuse at The Oval because that was a pretty good batting wicket, but when you as a side are scoring 200 on a pitch where the opposition are being bowled out for 80, you've done a reasonably good job. It would be wrong to bury our heads in the sand and say everything is fine, but I'm very satisfied with the batting group generally. The key is to make sure that if you do lose a wicket, the next guy that comes in establishes himself at the crease and doesn't allow the opposition to build some strong momentum."
For Strauss himself, there's an extra pressure looming in this match, partly as a result of Alastair Cook's success in quelling the calls for his head by reaching a personally invaluable century in that Oval defeat, and partly as a consequence of Strauss's own struggle for form this summer. As was the case against India in 2007, when he was dropped from the team following a prolonged slump, he's been dismissed by a left-arm seamer in five innings out of six - with Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz filling the roles of Zaheer Khan and RP Singh respectively. And while Kevin Pietersen has attracted attention for his run of 25 innings without a century, Strauss is also in need of a significant score - since making 161 against Australia on this ground in July 2009, he's gone 22 innings without reaching three figures.
"It's one of those things," said Strauss. "If you start looking for too many reasons for things, then you're not concentrating on what you need to do, which is to go out and play. I'm reasonably happy with how my batting is going, because I've made some useful contributions but not got to three figures. A lot of the pressure that comes on a batsman comes from outside the group, but Lord's is a wicket I generally play well on, and I'm confident things will go my way."
If ever there was a venue designed to quell the jitters of England's malfunctioning top-order, it is Lord's, where a place on the famous dressing-room honours board manages - for the batsmen at least - to be both a thrilling accolade and somewhat passé. Both Strauss and Pietersen have made four centuries at the ground, with Pietersen's 152 against South Africa in 2008 leading to his memorable declaration that he had "never felt so loved", and of the current top seven, only Eoin Morgan has yet to make his mark. Admittedly, he's only played at the ground on one occasion, against Bangladesh earlier this summer, but that was also Jonathan Trott's Lord's debut, and he marked the occasion with a career-best 226.
For Pakistan, however, the allure of playing at Lord's will be heightened by the memories and lessons learned during their defeat against Australia earlier in the summer. Although the eventual 150-run margin looks emphatic on paper, the reality was of another nip-and-tuck contest in which ball dominated bat until the latter stages of Australia's second innings, when the sun shone sufficiently to allow the last two wickets to add a vital 126 runs. Pakistan's captain, Salman Butt, who made 63 and 92 in the match, believes his team will be stronger for the experience.
"Now we know the slopes and from where the wind comes," he said. "Not more than the English team, but still I think if we can play to our potential, we can beat them and level the series, and that would be the most wonderful thing. To come from 2-0 down to level the series would help and boost their confidence for the rest of their futures, and in difficult times in the future they will have something very good to remember - even when they are older and telling young people what can happen."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.