England left to regret lack of killer touch
Once again, a match they seemed to have tamed got loose and bit them. During the Ashes wins at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge their inability to kill off a match proved thrilling. Now, it is just exasperating. At Multan before Christmas, they squandered a 144-run lead. At Nagpur, India attempted an extraordinary last-day heist. And here England look like falling off the tightrope again. As Andrew Miller recently said: "England have a dangerous addiction to the path of most resistance."
"I'm very disappointed at doing the hard work, getting in, and not being there tomorrow morning," said Ian Bell afterwards. He was talking of his own innings of 57 but could have been speaking for the team. "We really fought hard in this Test match and the last one. So to lose five wickets in one session is disappointing."
Today England's position went from promising to parlous to downright panicky. They began with India four men down, 151 behind and struggling on a bouncy pitch. They ended it in a mess: 74 ahead and five wickets down. Afterwards Bell identified the session in which India added 69 runs for their last three wickets and took a vital lead as the turning point.
Defeat here would leave a mountainous task at Mumbai and some serious questions to answer. The 2-0 loss in Pakistan could be written off as a trip too far after a hard year, a learning experience. But a series defeat here, the same result as under Nasser Hussain four years ago, would make the Ashes look less and less like the launch-pad for an assault on Australian dominance and more like a glorious freak.
So are the mistakes of Pakistan being rectified?
Collapses cost England in the first and last Tests before Christmas. And again, today, they lost five wickets in a session. However they were largely blameless this evening, with the exception of Alastair Cook who fended fatally outside off stump. The others toiled in vain while India's spinners found bite and spit and four wickets. "Definitely the conditions challenged everyone," said Bell. "Especially when Anil's got the ball. He bowled exceptionally well, the pitch just started turning."
But it should never have come to scrabbling for runs in the third innings. One big lesson England still have to absorb is that, given modern scoring rates, there is no safety in numbers. If you bat first you have to bat big. England's last first-innings efforts - 300, 393, 288, 446, 418 - have been decent but not intimidating. And in India the top order have been to blame: the last five wickets contributed almost half the runs at Nagpur and 40 percent here.
One lesson learnt concerns bowling. During the Lahore Test, Shaun Udal went for five an over and could not block up an end. Here, yesterday, Panesar allowed the quicks to rotate and England reaped the reward with Harmison hitting 94mph, showing a menace unseen in Pakistan. Some local sources say he is the quickest to visit since Malcolm Marshall. Harmison also brought chances for his colleagues because his economy led to wild shots at the other end.
Another problem in Pakistan was what England called cabin fever. Exhausted by the rigours of the subcontinent, they ended up mentally washed out and longing for home. To see if they have improved on that front we have to wait for the last Test at Mumbai - and what looks increasingly like being a last-ditch scrap for a shared series.
Paul Coupar is assistant editor of The Wisden Cricketer and will be covering the first two Tests for Cricinfo