Pakistan v England, 2nd Test, Abu Dhabi, 4th day January 28, 2012

England beaten, but not in ruins

England were beaten by the better team in Abu Dhabi but the mark of champions is how they respond to setbacks. The challenge starts now.

It would be easy to be critical. It would be easy to call for heads and demand explanations. It would easy, too, to state that England were always overrated and that it is all downhill for them now.

But it would not be true. Not entirely true, anyway. Yes, England were poor in Dubai - simply not up to speed for this level of competition - but they were beaten by the better side in Abu Dhabi. A side with two superb spinners on a pitch that turned. England did not surrender. They were beaten. There is a difference.

Anyone glancing at the scorecard in years to come will probably conclude this game was either played on a dust bowl or that England were wretched. Neither conclusion would be correct.

The pitch was true. The ball did not spit or roll. There was no uneven bounce. It turned. And, because England's batsmen were often deceived in the flight, the effects of the turn were magnified.

Let's be clear: a total of 72 can never be acceptable. It was their lowest score since the debacle of Jamaica in 2009 and the first time they had lost two Tests in a row since 2008. It was also only the second time in a century that they have failed to chase a target under 150 in the fourth innings. The other occasion was when Geoff Boycott's side were beaten by a Richard Hadlee-inspired New Zealand in Wellington in 1978.

Some of England's batting against spin bowling was close to hapless - four batsmen were punished for going back to deliveries to which they should have played forward - and there is clearly vast room for improvement in their approach.

But it would be doing Pakistan a disservice to suggest that all these wickets were due to batsmen error. The mastery of Saeed Ajmal - his variations and subtly - and the excellence of Abdur Rehman meant the target of 145 was always going to be testing. Any team would have struggled. Batting was desperately difficult.

The truth is that England came up against a couple of fine bowlers on a turning pitch and were found wanting. Pakistan have now won four Tests in a row (and seven out of their last nine) as well as four series in a row. They are very good. Don't just write off England; praise Pakistan.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised at Pakistan's excellence? They have, for decades, produced players of outrageous talent. It is just that, in the last few years, they have been hindered by off-field events. Thankfully, under the calm guidance of Misbah-ul-Haq, those days would seem to be in the past. It is just a shame that they are scheduled to play so little Test cricket in the near future. A series against India would be mouth watering.

It is not the first time Pakistan have burst England's bubble, either. In 2005 England arrived in Pakistan on the crest of a wave having just won the Ashes and Pakistan defeated them. And in 1992, England looked as if they were going to win the World Cup only for Imran Khan's cornered tigers to rediscover their roar. This series might be remembered equally ruefully.

England had attained the No. 1 Test ranking quite legitimately. But to answer all the critics, to prove to themselves that they really were the best side in the world, they had to win in Asia. That has proved beyond them. For now, anyway.

So, what do they do? Change the captain? The coach? The men who have planned and plotted their remarkable success? Bring in a host of new players forgetting that most of these have enjoyed a suburb time over the last year or two? Of course not. This England XI is, by and large, the best XI available to them and it is only through more exposure to such bowlers and such conditions that they will improve. The Lions side are, right now, playing in Sri Lanka and England's schedule this year will allow them every opportunity to adapt to Asian conditions. Tours to Sri Lanka and India loom.

That does not mean this defeat should be accepted with phlegmatic shrug. Far from it. England have to acknowledge their weakness against spin bowling and improve.

They also have to reflect on their tactics. In the fourth innings, their understandable desperation to occupy the crease crossed over into strokelessness. Alastair Cook's innings of 7 occupied 15 overs, Strauss' 32 took 29. It allowed Pakistan to pile on the pressure and gave England no release. They struggled to even rotate the strike.

It is somewhat facile to suggest they should have simply "got on with it". Just think of how the media would have chastised batsmen that were caught at mid off or square leg. Besides, any aggressive approach against this spin attack - an attack which bowls at unusual pace, with a bowler who can turn the ball both ways - involves risk.

But England would do well to examine how other Asian teams play spin bowling. Kumar Sangakkara, for example, either went right back in his crease or came a long way forward to disrupt the length of these bowlers when Sri Lanka played Pakistan. Meanwhile the likes of VVS Laxman have come down the pitch to combat bowlers as skilled as Shane Warne. It can be done. It is not easy, but it can be done.

There are questions too, over a few members of this side. Kevin Pietersen is averaging 4.25 in this series and his missed run-out of Asad Shafiq on the third day was a crucial moment. Eoin Morgan appears hapless against spin and Ian Bell has faced 29 balls from Saeed Ajmal and been dismissed by him three times. They are meant to form the spine of the team. All of them are now potentially fighting for their Test careers. Morgan, in particular.

Perhaps there are questions to be asked, too, about the continuing absence of England players on IPL duty. Had the likes of Pietersen and Morgan played more county cricket last year, they may well have come up against Monty Panesar, Saeed Ajmal and even Graeme Swann. If England really want their next generation of players to enjoy the best possible preparation, they have to ensure their domestic cricket is as strong as it can be. They are not doing that at present and the acceptance of the Morgan Review will inflict further damage.

But remember, England fought well throughout this Test. Stuart Broad, Monty Panesar, Cook and Jonathan Trott all produced performances that deserved better. Had Shafiq and Azhar Ali not led a Pakistan fightback, England might well have won. It was, hard though it may be to see now, a step in the right direction from Dubai.

England were beaten. But so was Muhammad Ali. The true measure of champions is how they respond to such setbacks. The challenge starts now for England.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on January 31, 2012, 21:39 GMT

    @csowmi7 on (January 30 2012, 17:42 PM GMT) And what relevance do series/tests from yesteryear have on today's game ? Absolutely zero. But if quoting stats from the past (and you've never beaten Australia away) make you feel better about the 2 recent away series whitewashes then all the best to you.

  • Richard on January 31, 2012, 16:32 GMT

    @Divinetouch You really ought to read peoples' postings before commenting on them - you claim that we England fans are somehow in denial ? Er , look again , my friend , nobody is saying that we haven't been beaten ! Neither are we trying to ' change the result ' (sic) nor are we scurrying around looking for excuses ; we got beat , fair and square ! Oh , and congratulations to the Pakistan team on their victory , where are my manners ! You do not expect English supporters ever again to ' gloat and crow ' about how good their team is ?? Well , the silence from you Indian fans should be totally deafening then !!! As if.

  • Ijaz on January 30, 2012, 20:52 GMT

    NOT in RUINS?, rather in tatters. Sevent two all out chasing a target of 145 not in Ruins. They were bragging to chase about 250 yet bowled out for 72. Oh yea in RUINS. Keep it up England!!!!!! you blame game isn't going to work again.

  • sowmi on January 30, 2012, 17:42 GMT

    @5Wombats. There's no point in England winning series in Australia in conditions like home. It is just like India winning in Sri Lanka. The English batsman clearly lack the skills and application as they have hardly ever done anything of note in the sub continent. This not being the case for India. We have won a series in England and won tests in australia- perth, adelaide and in south africa- durban and Johannesburg , in west indies and in new zealand. The England side has never in the past produced world class bowlers in the same league as mcgrath, steyn, akram, nor have they produced batsman in the same class as tendulkar, ponting,lara, kallis. Unless they do so they will continue to be mediocre.

  • Dummy4 on January 30, 2012, 15:56 GMT

    A very balanced assessment of the match and the teams. Yes, England lost the series but both teams produced one of the best cricket one can wish for. The current England squad is the finest there has been for a long time. They are well honed, professional, and eager to play good cricket and win if possible. Winning and losing is important but not so important. Both teams performed outstandingly and ought to be commended.

  • Sasikumar on January 30, 2012, 12:27 GMT

    England players are green track bullies (time for tit for tat), you ruled your den with top class fast bowlers and class batting line up who can face swing and bounce..Now its an aliens place, all these Asian teams have done well in England even won the series in all the formats......It never ever happened for you Guys and it will not happen also....

  • Keith on January 30, 2012, 10:07 GMT

    The proposal to have internationals play county cricket in order to improve against spin has merit, but simply telling players to skip IPL and other T20 league cricket in order to do so goes beyond glib into the realm of fantasy. Even young Australians do not follow the lead of Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke on that score! (Notice how Ponting snuck in a few Big Bash League matches for his Hobart side.) Also, there is no gainsaying the fact that English county wickets are rarely akin to Asian dust bowls. Maybe >more< IPL experience on dusty wickets, even when not in anything like Test conditions, could bear at least some fruit. The real solution, though, is probably more structural in nature. End the Balkanisation of cricket wickets! Have ICC set unified global standards and make them stick with all local ground staffs. This would be the only way forward toward a Test Championship where the result would be fair and provide meaningful context.

  • Salman on January 30, 2012, 7:38 GMT

    I don't know what happened to World Cricket today.. The ICC and Teams should be get more emphasis on Quality of Cricket.. Not on Ranking. I didn't understand why Ranking should be in cricket at the first place. Only 10 International teams are playing a test arena. Its looks like a movies and billboards numbers who is at the top.. Just simply Pathetic.

  • Khawaja on January 30, 2012, 7:36 GMT

    well it does seem that the time shafiq and azhar batted when the england spin attack seemingly failed late on teh third day and early on the fourth...strauss was a bit desperate while cook seemed frightened...many think they should call up kieswetter who is at least a real aggressive opener or try out stephen davies in place of strauss who should play at number four...with three top batsmen failing they did not bring reliable replacements...their spinners will have tobe more aggressive in the third test too even though panesar bowled well...the pakistani spinners had different bowls for each player...and teh england were left trying defend against the last ball that troubled their batsmen...i think flower might have a problem being a coach against a spin attack that becomes unplayable at times...playing spin is usually on teh front foot and the speed has tobe noticed especially against ajmal

  • John on January 30, 2012, 5:39 GMT

    So many people posting here are just looking for something to whine about. I think that the point is that if Muhammad Ali can be as great as people obviously think he was and still get beaten then it's not a shame for this England team, which does not claim any such greatness, to be beaten. I may be proven wrong but I really think that England have psyched themselves out of this series. No doubt that Pakistan are bowling well but it's still possible to score runs against good bowling if you bat well, which England haven't. They seem to have decided as a group to play defensively against the spinners and it hasn't worked. I believe that if they try to be more attacking then they can disrupt the bowler's line and length and the captain's field placings, thus creating more scoring opportunities. How many batsmen need to be out LBW on the back foot before they realise that they need to get forward more often than not, using their feet to get down the wicket if needs be?

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