Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.
England's bowling coach, David Saker, has criticised his charges for a "complacent" performance on the third afternoon of the second Test at Edgbaston, during which Pakistan's tail took advantage of the best batting conditions of the match to turn a likely innings defeat into a potentially tricky target of 118. Though the match was eventually won by a comfortable nine-wicket margin to hand England their sixth Test victory in a row, Saker insisted that such lapses cannot be tolerated if England are to pose a real threat when they fly to Australia for the Ashes later this year.
"That's the thing we've been trying to talk about since I came on board [in April]," Saker told Cricinfo's Switch Hit podcast. "We've been trying to make sure that, when the conditions are a bit tougher, we have good plans and go about our job meticulously, and build up some pressure on the batsmen. So as far as I was concerned that was a bit of a worrying sign, and it showed a bit of complacency from the whole group."
Having excelled in swinging conditions to bowl Pakistan out for 80 and 72 in consecutive innings at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston, England appeared to believe that the match was as good as over when Pakistan - still trailing by 97 - slumped to 82 for 5 in their second innings. However, Zulqarnain Haider escaped a king pair to top-score with a battling 88 on debut, and England's frustrations were summed up by the 50% fine that Stuart Broad incurred after throwing the ball at Haider's shoulder in a fit of pique.
"There were definitely signs that we were going through the motions, and when we were put under pressure we didn't think that well on our feet," said Saker. "We made some fielding errors and we just weren't on top of our game in that little period, so it wasn't great. But moving forward we definitely need to work on that part of our game, because when we come up against Australia there are going to be times when the ball doesn't swing and we'll need to come up with some plans to be successful and get though the ten wickets we need every innings."
However, Saker - whose own playing career was notable for the occasional bout of "white-line fever" - came to the defence of Broad following the Haider incident. While accepting that his player had been in the wrong, he said that that there was no way he would seek to temper the aggression that he brings to his game, because the desire to get into the face of the opposition batsmen was an essential trait for any paceman, especially one who hopes to get the better of Australia.
"He's tall and he hits the wicket hard so he needs to be aggressive, and I like it," said Saker. "He had some things building up - there was a caught-behind [off Haider] that most of our guys thought was out, and he didn't get the rewards he wanted for a very good spell - but he knows there's a fine line that you have to tread, and he'd be the first to admit that he went over it a little bit the other day. But there's no way I'll take that aggression out of his game. It's just about focusing it and making sure it works for the team and not against us."
Even though there are still two Tests remaining of the Pakistan series, the spectre of the Ashes is looming ever larger, with the former Australian coach John Buchanan already in the country to help the ECB with their strategic planning. Saker, for his part, has also chosen to step up those preparations this week by introducing the Australian-favoured Kookaburra ball to England's nets session at The Oval on Sunday.
"We're definitely not looking further ahead than the third Test against Pakistan, so we'll be training with the Dukes ball as well," said Saker. "It's more about them getting the ball in their hands a lot between now and the Ashes, so that it's not something that's foreign when they first get thrown it in Australia. I'm convinced it's a mind thing. The ball simply doesn't swing in Australia like it does in England, so we as a bowling group have to come to terms with that and still have plans in place."
The timing may seem strange, coming in the midst of a series that is not yet over, but Saker said that the nature of the abrasive Oval wicket was a factor in bringing forward England's experiments with the Kookaburra. "Seeing as it is more like an Australian surface, we might get a good idea of how it roughs up and what we can do to protect the ball, and what we can do to get reverse swing," he said. "We're still concentrating on the next Test and making it 3-0, but we have one eye definitely on another thing further down the track."
To that end, Saker was pleased with one aspect of England's performance in the second innings at Edgbaston, and that was the effort of James Anderson, who excelled with 15 wickets in the first three innings of the series, but knuckled down to bowl 28 tidy overs second-time around when the skies cleared and the lateral movement eluded him. In years gone by, Anderson has searched for magic balls when conditions have been against him, and has leaked runs as a result, with his current record in Australia reading five wickets at 82.60. Now, however, Saker believes he is learning how to defend as well as attack.
"We know how effective he is with the swinging ball, the pressure is on him to do that when we go somewhere where it is not swinging," said Saker. "But what I've liked that I've seen of late is he's not getting cut and hit off the back foot through point, or pulled and hooked. He's bowling the ball in an area where he's always putting the pressure on a batsman to make a good decision, and if he can do that, he's always going to be an asset whether it's swinging or not. We want him to bring the batsman forward, because we don't mind him getting driven occasionally for four. We just don't want him to be cut or pulled."
According to Saker, the same principle applies to all of England's bowlers, especially on wickets such as Edgbaston where reverse swing doesn't come into play. "We have set out a focus in the whole group of dropping our economy rates down, and if we can do that we'll put pressure on any team," he said. "If we can get that economy rate under three, we'll be bowling sides out for less than 300, and if you do that you are in a good position to win Tests."
Despite his concerns about their hiccup at Edgbaston, Saker is confident that the squad of bowlers at his disposal - with Tim Bresnan and Ajmal Shahzad waiting in the wings - has the tools and the temperament to rise to the challenges that lie in wait this winter.
"With the make-up of our team, with Jimmy the swing bowler, two taller bowlers in Broad and [Steven] Finn, and the best spinner in the world in Graeme Swann, I'm really excited, and confident," said Saker. "When you've got taller bowlers on whatever surface you've got, if you are banging away on a good area for good periods of time, the natural variations of the wickets, allied to their height and pace, will cause some big dramas for the batting team.
"But for me, it's about making sure they are thinking in the right way, and that tactically they are aware," he added. "If they are playing Test cricket they are pretty good cricketers to start with, so I don't want to change their techniques too much, unless there's something glaring that needs to be addressed. Steven Finn is young so he needs a bit of guidance, but with Broad it's about keeping him team-orientated in every over he bowls, and with Jimmy Anderson it's all about making sure his tactics are right, and how he thinks when he goes about his bowling."