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Match Analysis

An accident waiting to happen

England played a full part in a compelling Test, but if they are to continue to evolve as a Test side the top order has to shape matches

George Dobell
George Dobell
17-Jul-2016
It will be of little consolation to an England team smarting from defeat in the short term but, in years to come, when they look back on this match, they may reflect with some gratitude that they were involved in one of the more compelling Tests of recent times.
Four days of enthralling cricket, featuring patches of brilliance, moments of awfulness and several shifts in the balance of power were watched by full houses who applauded the achievements of both sides. In a country that has been divided and against a team that, on their last visit, made few friends, it was a hugely encouraging, restorative experience. In the grand scheme, these things matter a great deal more than results.
Pakistan didn't just beat England: they charmed their supporters with their flair and joy. Responding to dropped catches and near misses with smiles, they demonstrated outrageous skills at times - Yasir Shah and Wahab Riaz, in particular, were wonderful on the final day - as well as unity and good humour. They may have left Lord's in 2010 in disgrace. But their rehabilitation is complete. They are impossible not to like and admire.
But while it is no disgrace to lose to such a side - a side who may well have the best bowling attack in Test cricket - England will know that their batting let them down in this match. Not for the first time, their vulnerability was exposed but this time, with no Ben Stokes and both Jonny Bairstow and Joe Root pushed a place up the order, they lacked the depth to rebuild. It has been an accident waiting to happen for some time.
Alastair Cook called the batting "naive." Reasoning that England were "100 runs light" in their first innings, he blamed "poor shot selection" for his team's low totals and admitted "frustration" at losing six wickets to legspin on a first-innings pitch offering Yasir Shah little assistance.
"It was a 350 or 400 wicket," Cook said. "So for a legspinner to get a six-for on day two is frustrating. We allowed Yasir to get six wickets when he wasn't turning the ball. It cost us.
"We played too many bad shots. There was some poor shot selection and we played some naïve shots at times. Nobody scored a hundred for us in this game and you don't win too many games when you don't score hundreds."
Perhaps the key moment - and certainly one of the defining moments - of the game came when England were well-poised at 118 for 1 in their first innings. With the opportunity to build an imposing first innings, Root attempted a slog-sweep and top-edged the ball to midwicket. England's inexperienced middle-order was exposed and what could have been a first-innings lead became a deficit.
It was a moment that goes a long way to summing up the current character of this England side. They are inventive and brave, for sure. And when it comes off, they are a joy to watch.
But they are also, as Cook put it, "naive." While the best sides show a ruthlessness to shut opposition out of the game, England are still struggling to find the balance between the positive cricket that reflects the natural style of their game and the disciplined cricket that characterises the best sides. Instead of seeing off bowling and accumulating, there is still a tendency to try to hit bowlers out of the attack.
It was demonstrated again in the second innings. Root, ignoring the man placed for the stroke, fell pulling, Alex Hales went cutting and Moeen Ali was bowled after he skipped down the pitch to his fourth ball and attempted to hit Yasir back over his head. It was oddly reckless batting for a side that had almost 180 overs to score 283.
While Gary Ballance looked reassuringly solid in contributing 43, James Vince's streaky 42 was less convincing. As well as being dropped on 9, the result of reaching for a drive well outside off stump, he survived a sliced drive off Yasir that flew just over point and another edge of Wahab that passed between slip and gully.
Though his cover drive is pleasing, his inclination to play it against the swinging ball with limited foot movement is not. He is likely to win another chance at Old Trafford but, bearing in mind he has also dropped four chances (albeit tough ones), he might consider himself fortunate to be playing under the current selection regime.
Despite the batsmen letting England down, it will probably be two bowlers who are dropped for Manchester. Steven Finn and Jake Ball are the most vulnerable as England look to make space for the return of James Anderson (whose absence here is a red herring; England lost because of weak batting not the absence of another good swing bowler) and Stokes.
While there may be some concern about including two men coming back from injury in a four-man seam attack, the return of Stokes would lengthen the batting order. Chris Woakes' emergence means there is no need to hurry him, though. Adil Rashid may also replace Moeen, or perhaps join him in the squad.
Another option would be to select a solid top-order batsman in the mould of Cook. With the selectors unlikely to go back to Nick Compton - who is expected to return to cricket with Middlesex in the next few days - there might be some wisdom in looking to Sam Robson, who has been one of the most impressive batsmen in county cricket this season. That would allow Hales to move to No. 3 and Root back to No. 4 and provide a little of the ballast that England seem to be missing.
It is unlikely to happen, though. This England team appears so committed to picking 'positive' players and playing aggressive cricket, that it is in danger of overlooking players who might help provide the best chance of winning. The flair of Root et al is wonderful, but only if it is tempered by a bit of restraint and patience will it be fulfilled.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo