Pakistan v England, 1st Test, Dubai, 1st day January 17, 2012

England spooked by spin and pre-match talk

On a pitch that, initially at least, offered little assistance to bowlers of any type, England's top order folded as meekly as a shy kitten in a room full of alligators

Like being mugged by a man with a plastic gun, England allowed their fears to cloud their actions on the first day of the Test series against Pakistan. Maybe it was all the pre-Test talk of new deliveries and combating spin, but England appeared paralysed by the very thought of the Pakistan slow bowlers.

Perhaps all that talk - the focus on the unknown and of Saeed Ajmal's 'new' delivery - was the problem. England appeared full of fear and treated every ball as if it may spit and fizz. In truth, most of them went straight. Quite simply, England were spooked.

On a pitch that, initially at least, offered little assistance to bowlers of any type, England's top order folded as meekly as a shy kitten in a room full of alligators. All the brave talk about their new-found confidence against spin bowling was shown to be mere bluster. Whatever their success elsewhere, they have acres of room for improvement on Asian pitches.

Such a conclusion should take nothing away from the excellence of the Pakistan attack. Quite the contrary. While a glance at the scorecard might convince the casual observer that this pitch offered plentiful help to the spinners, it was not so.

Instead, Pakistan's bowlers utilised the timeless virtues of excellent control and subtle variation. Maintaining a wonderfully nagging line, they preyed on England's insecurities as vultures might on dying lambs. In all, Pakistan's spinners claimed nine for 112 runs; not a bad effort for a first-day pitch after the opposition had chosen to bat.

Ajmal, in particular, was masterful. Utilising all his variations, an immaculate line and length and benefitting from the pressure applied by his colleagues, Ajmal claimed the best figures of his first-class career and recorded the fifth-best figures by a Pakistan bowler in Tests against England.

It wasn't just Ajmal, however. Abdur Rehman, darting the ball in at a sharp pace, increased the pressure on the batsmen with a mean opening spell that conceded only five runs in his first eight overs. Later on, he also produced the ball of the day, a beauty that pitched middle-and-leg and hit the top of off stump, to curtail an England fight back.

But it was Mohammad Hafeez who inflicted the first blow. Called into the attack in just the sixth over - an inspired piece of captaincy that exploited Hafeez's excellence against left-handers and the openers' unease against slower bowlers at the start of their innings - the offspinner took just three balls to strike. Cook, immediately out of his comfort zone, was drawn into a cut shot off a ball that was neither short enough or wide enough for the shot.

Ajmal showed up familiar frailties that suggest, for all the talk of recent times, England still have mountains to climb in Asia

Perhaps Jonathan Trott, the only England batsman not to fall to spin bowling, was unfortunate to be caught down the leg side, but just about every one of his colleagues will reflect that they had more than a hand in their own downfall. Andrew Strauss, attempting to break the shackles, was bowled as he attempted a desperate pull and, by the time Kevin Pietersen's torturous innings was ended when he missed his lunge at a straight one and Ian Bell's tentative prod was edged to the keeper, England had faced 58 balls of spin bowling and lost four wickets for four runs. Later Eoin Morgan, again trying to be positive when the situation called for calm and patience, missed an unnecessarily risky sweep to a straight ball that could have been defended with comfort.

If England were wretched, however, Pakistan were full of guile. Sometimes, Ajmal's variations were tiny - a scrambled seam here, a more slingy action there, he bowled both over and round the wicket and changed his pace subtly - but he consistently bowled straight and posed questions of the batsmen. Questions to which they had no answers. There was scarcely a poor ball all day and England, exhibiting remarkably brittle confidence for the No. 1 ranked team in Test cricket, buckled under the pressure.

Things could have been even worse from an England perspective. At 94 for 7, they were facing the prospect of a new record low score against Pakistan and that it remains 130 - once at Lahore in 1987 and once at The Oval in 1954 - was largely due to the resilience of Matt Prior and Graeme Swann.

While Swann counter-attacked intelligently, driving powerfully whenever the ball was in his area, Prior defended sensibly and showed the virtue of playing straight. This was the third occasion in his Test career in which he had scored more runs than the top six combined. No England batsman has done that more. He helped England's last three wickets add 98 runs and more than double the contribution of the top order.

Perhaps, had Adnan Akmal clung on to a thin edge offered by Swann when the batsman had just 8, the day could have been even better for Pakistan. But they will have few complaints. They played the more intelligent cricket and looked a well organised, united unit than any Pakistan team has looked for a long time.

For England this day was a wake-up call. They are not out of this series or this match. But Ajmal showed up familiar frailties that suggest, for all the talk of recent times, England still have mountains to climb in Asia.

The manner in which Pakistan began their reply - Swann's second delivery was thumped back over his head for four by Hafeez - underlined the fact that they have no such concerns.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo