Defeat could herald new era for England
As wake-up calls go, England's thrashing at the hands of Pakistan was more a bucket of cold water thrown in the face than a gentle hand on the shoulder and a warm cup of tea. England weren't just beaten, they were overwhelmed.
It's happened before of course. In Perth in December 2010, Johannesburg in January 2010, and Leeds in August 2009, England were dealt equally emphatic defeats. And each time they bounced back with admirable resilience.
This time feels different. On each of the other occasions that England have suffered a heavy defeat since Andy Flower was appointed permanent coach, it has been quite reasonable to dismiss it as an aberration. England had played well previously and there was no reason to think that anything had fundamentally changed. Perhaps it will turn out to be the same this time. Perhaps, in a few weeks, we will look back on this Test as nothing more than a blip.
But there are key differences. This time England are playing in Asian conditions. This time England have no track record upon which to draw comfort. This time could mark the start of a new era.
Flower knows all this. He knows England are in unchartered territory and he knows they cannot live on former glories. He knows, too, that this is the first of three Asian tours within 12 months. But he also knows that outward signs of panic or concern are not going to help and he does feel his team can take comfort from the success with which they have negotiated previous hurdles.
"Beating Australia in Australia was a big test," Flower said. "I'm not sure this is a bigger test, but it is a real test. We've got this tour then Sri Lanka, then India, so we'd better get up to speed very quickly. This team has done great things in the recent past but you have to move on. This result is a very good indication that you have to live in the present. Pakistan outplayed us by a long margin in this Test. We underperformed but we can come back from this."
It was the batting that let England down in Dubai. Most shocking was the shot selection of some senior players with Kevin Pietersen, in particular, succumbing to an especially poor shot: guiding his pull down the throat of the fielder positioned for the stroke at deep square leg. But rather than singling out individuals, Flower was keen for the batting unit to take collective responsibility.
"All batsmen are under pressure to make good decisions and it's unfair to single out one batsman," Flower said. "In a number of instances in both innings there were soft dismissals and poor decisions. If you make poor decisions in Test cricket, you get severely punished for it. Our batsmen have a record of making very good decisions and that's part of the reason why we've done so well recently. We've made some incredible first innings scores to put us into position to put the opposition under pressure. On this occasion we weren't good enough to do that.
"Our batsmen have a pretty good record against spin. I don't think it's a matter of reinventing the wheel. They all have their individual strengths and they have to focus on those. Most of our batsmen will recognise they underperformed. We will try to learn from it. One of our principles is to continually improve and we can certainly improve on this performance."
Flower also defended the form of Andrew Strauss. England's captain has recorded just one century in his last 26 Tests and didn't manage one in 2011. His double failure in Dubai meant the whispers about his position are beginning to grow in volume.
"He's a pretty calm bloke and I wouldn't say he's in poor form at all," Flower said. "He looks very composed and compact at the crease. He got out in the first innings to a shot he wouldn't want to repeat and he was unlucky in the second innings. That's how it goes sometimes. He will come back."
Flower dismissed the suggestion that the selection of Monty Panesar would have made any difference. "We all know it was the batting that let us down," Flower said. "Our bowlers did a superb job to bring us back into the game and if we'd batted better in the second innings, we might have been able to put them under some pressure.
"If we'd taken the game into the fourth or even fifth day, it would have been a really interesting game of cricket. The pitch was excellent, really fair for quick bowlers, spinners and batsmen, and there was certainly no blame on that front. But let's have a look at the conditions in Abu Dhabi and we'll make decisions based on what will give us the best chance of winning."
As officials at Dubai Sports City arranged to give spectators with tickets for the fourth and fifth days their money back, Flower elected to give the team a day-off on Friday. The days of "naughty boy nets" are over. England will train on Saturday before travelling to Abu Dhabi on Sunday. But Flower did suggest, after a long break following the ODI tour of India, that some players were not quite "up to speed".
"I don't think we were underprepared or lacking in application," Flower said. "Our preparation in the two first-class games was good and the facilities were excellent. It might be fair to say that the lay-off we've had probably means people aren't quite up to speed as we usually are. However, we needed that break. The players needed a mental and physical break and you can't have it all ways. Our challenge now is to get up to speed for the second Test.
"One of the exciting things is that there are two Tests left so we can still win the series. I'd much rather be 1-0 up but that's not the case. It's going to take a lot of great cricket to ensure firstly that we get level."
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo