England pair defy Pakistan before cracks reappear
Sometimes it is only once something has gone that we appreciate its true value. So it was with Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott's partnership on the second day in Abu Dhabi. It would be stretching the point to suggest that batting was a straightforward pastime while the pair were together, but it certainly looked a great deal easier than it did once they were separated.
For a while it appeared Cook and Trott would bat England into a position of dominance. The pair stayed together for 50 overs and added 139 runs. England were just 91 behind with nine wickets in hand. Perhaps, people whispered, England had learned to combat Asian conditions?
We should have known better. Suddenly, as if shaking England out of their dream, Abdur Rehman produced a beautiful delivery to account for Trott and, a little while later, Cook was defeated by a Saeed Ajmal doosra.
Cook's departure sparked a collapse of three wickets for nine runs in 10 overs. England's middle order, for the third time in three innings this series, was exposed by Pakistan's excellent spin attack.
It would be wrong, though, to suggest that England threw away the initiative. The truth is that Pakistan wrestled it from them. Ajmal, in particular, was masterful. He bowled every bit as well as he had in Dubai and could have dismissed every one of the England batsmen on numerous occasions.
But Cook had, at least, shown England the way to prosper in these conditions. He played straight, he used his long stride to negate the spin where possible and he was patient. Kevin Pietersen, by contrast, showed how not to do it. His attempt to whip Ajmal across the line was simply reckless. "Oops," he tweeted later.
Cook's batting is largely about denial. He denies himself cross-batted strokes, he denies himself lavish strokes outside the off stump and he denies himself the indulgence of worrying about his strike-rate. While Pietersen, all too often, gives his wicket away, Cook demands a high price.
It is perhaps not pretty. But England have had plenty of more naturally talented men - the likes of Mark Ramprakash and Graeme Hick - who could time the ball sweetly but tended to fail when the pressure mounted. Cook offers substance more than style. And it is substance that wins Tests.
Besides, we tend to use the 'talent' word loosely. If talent is just about hand-eye coordination and the ability to play pleasing strokes, than Cook is an also-ran. If it is about mental strength, determination and fortitude, then Cook has talent aplenty.
There were similarities between this innings and Cook's debut century against England in Nagpur in 2006. He hardly attempted the sweep, he rarely came down the pitch and he never allowed a scoreless period to concern him. As he put it afterwards, he stuck to his game plan and it worked.
His partnership with Trott also reminded England that batting can become easier if they can only survive their first half-hour at the crease. Trott, in particular, struggled in the early stages of his innings. But, with Cook soaking up most of Ajmal's early overs and Trott finding his feet, England began to settle.
"It's never easy to get to 20," Cook said afterwards, "and it is always hard work for new batsmen. But, if you can stay there long enough, you do get used to the conditions. You do start to feel more at ease. When a batting partnership gets going, it can prove hard to break."
But break it Pakistan did. While Cook reckons he can read Ajmal "80% of the time," it was telling that it was a doosra that eventually defeated him.
"We still had a good day," Cook added, "but the last 20 minutes turned it from a very good day. In an ideal world, we would only have two or three wickets down, but full credit to Pakistan: they bowled very well in that last half-hour."
Cook also said that he was tempted to ask for a review when he was adjudged LBW. "I got the nod from Kevin Pietersen," Cook said, "but it was very frustrating." It was the fourth time Cook had fallen in the 90s in Test cricket.
It would be dangerous to draw too many conclusions from the day's play. Yes, England coped, for a time at least, better with the spin threat. But just as it was wrong to jump to conclusions after the debacle of Dubai, it would be wrong to presume all is well after a good session or two in Abu Dhabi. Denying Ajmal remains the key to the series and the struggles of England's middle order suggested some of them are no nearer finding an answer to him.
The truth is, England enjoyed several large slices of fortune. Not only did Pakistan make a fearful hash of their reviews, but they also saw several edges fall agonisingly close to fielders.
Perhaps England were lucky with the toss, too. With the pitch starting just a little damp, England's spinners enjoyed some help that was denied to Pakistan's . By the time England had batted, the outfield had quickened, the pitch had dried and run scoring was easier. Only after tea did Pakistan feel that the ball was beginning to turn enough to threaten.
It is hard to predict how the pitch will play later in the game. As Cook said "history suggests this wicket holds together," and it may barely deteriorate. The suspicion is, however, that this is a very different wicket. Batting last could be tricky and if England can gain a first-innings lead of anything over 80, it could be priceless.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo