England beaten, but not in ruins

Eoin Morgan loses his off stump to Abdur Rehman AFP

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.