After topsy-turvy tour Strauss faces an acid test in Sri Lanka
England flopped in Tests despite their No 1 ranking and swept a one-day series Pakistan were expected to win. Questions remain for captain and squad
What a peculiar business it has been in the United Arab Emirates. Both teams achieved clean sweeps, yet for both the tour could be decreed a failure.
England were expected to win the Test series against Pakistan and lost 3-0. Confidence was similarly high that they would lose the one-day series and they won 4-0. Both these results were the wrong way round.
Nothing could properly redeem matters for England, the world's No 1 Test side, because the longest form of the game is still the one that truly counts. It has turned the spotlight on to their estimable captain, Andrew Strauss, and if his side were to lose the two-match series in Sri Lanka next month he may start to wilt under its harsh glare.
As for Pakistan, their Test victory has been utterly forgotten at home. Their outstanding captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, who led them out of darkness, is being derided because the one-day game is what people care about and his job is on the line.
Perversely, the only cricket that anybody watched in any numbers was the Twenty20 series at the end. All three games were sell-outs and it went to the wire, a warning if ever there was one.
It is reasonable to assume that, had the schedule meant the Tests came later, England would have prevailed. After their lamentable ineptness against high-class spin in alien conditions, a failure of nerve as much as method, they changed their approach.
There are genuine reasons to suppose that England will do much better against Sri Lanka, partly perhaps because their opponents do not have quite the quality of slow bowling, partly because of an improved mindset. If not, then valid questions will be asked about England's status.
"I think we have learnt a few things," said the team's coach, Andy Flower. "I'm not saying we are the finished article by any stretch of the imagination but I expect us to play significantly better in Sri Lanka."
The squad for the short tour to the teardrop island is being announced this morning and, in line with current selectorial practice, is likely to contain no surprises. It is hard to break into England's Test team and it is harder to break out of it, a policy unlikely to be changed by one series.
As it was the batting that caused the mess, however, it is the batting that will form most of the discussion. Eoin Morgan has had a dreadful tour and it may be time to give him a break from the Test team, if not the squad.
An average of 30 and two hundreds cannot disguise recent shortcomings. In 16 innings in the UAE he has not made more than 31. Flower dropped a hint about the way he might be thinking. "He's had little glimpses of success, but he's had a tough tour of the UAE, there's no doubt about that. And I think his record would suggest that he found Test cricket pretty tough. I think he's averaging about 30 so he's got some work to do in that regard."
Morgan is a richly talented player, with nerves of steel and a healthy sense of his own ability, but batsmen have to score runs. It may be that his poor Test form is affecting his limited-overs form, which is his stronger suit. If Morgan is overlooked, then Ravi Bopara will be given another shot, his third, to make a go of it as a Test batsman.
Bopara probably deserves it but at some point England have to go trawling elsewhere, among the Lions. Jonny Bairstow has thrust himself forward once more after his brutally composed innings of 60 not out in the second Twenty20 match.
One innings does not a player make, as Bairstow has already demonstrated once in his litany of failures after his explosive unbeaten 41 on his England debut in an ODI last September. But it was perhaps notable that Flower included his name in a list of batsmen he nominated as playing skilfully and making good decisions against spin.
Bairstow can also point to a first-class season which brought him 1,213 runs at an average of 48. One of his three hundreds was for the England Lions, which must count for something. He has probably nudged ahead of James Taylor, captain of the Lions on their recent Test tour, and Jos Buttler.
The defeat of the Test team and the triumph of the one-day team has understandably trained attention on the split captaincies. Strauss remains Test captain, still one of England's most successful with 21 wins from 42 matches, but with Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad as one-day and T20 captains respectively his lease is not as open-ended as it once looked. For the moment, though, his position has not shifted, as Flower insisted.
"One's status as a leader doesn't increase significantly or decrease significantly over one series," he said. "Your standing as a leader is judged over a much longer time and we'd be fickle to do anything different."
But Strauss needs some runs too. Whether the three-captains policy will continue indefinitely must be doubtful but it has worked smoothly enough. All attempts to suggest that Cook's inclusion in the T20 squad would undermine Broad have been firmly rebuffed. And it clearly has not. Yet if, for instance, Cook's team were to continue to win and Strauss's not to, then the questions would become more insistent. Again, Flower gave a clue about his thinking.
"They are all very different," he said. "Probably the most obvious difference is the amount of experience Strauss has as a leader and the lack of experience in the other two. That's not to say they aren't good operators. But that's a very obvious difference. And they are very much in the learning stage of captaincy.
"I remember back to some of my experiences. I first captained Zimbabwe when I was 25 and when I look back now at some of the mistakes I made then in the way you speak to some people, deal with tactics on the field or deal with team talks, sometimes I cringe about some of the things I did.
"We should not expect our young captains to be perfect and have all the answers. But I think it's really exciting watching them operate and learn. I think they've held themselves really well under pressure – both Cook and Broad. So I think that's a really healthy position for English cricket to be in."
No reflection on the last two months would be complete without a mention of England's bowling. It has been uniformly excellent: they form the world's best, deepest attack. Who to play against Sri Lanka is an enjoyable puzzle not easily solved. They will make life hard for any side, anywhere.
Seven weeks in the gulf: highs, lows and lessons learnt by England
A 3-0 defeat was clear-cut if not quite as emphatic as the scoreline sounds. It should have shaken the side to the core and appears to have made the batsmen understand that different conditions demand different methods. The inability to think and adjust on their feet was alarming and cannot be repeated. But the series was utterly absorbing from the first morning when Saeed Ajmal stamped his doosra imprint on proceedings.
Marked by the continuing wonderful reinvention of Alastair Cook and the renaissance of Kevin Pietersen in a new role as opener, England won it 4-0 after gaining early momentum that they did not let slip. The fielding was pinpoint sharp and Pakistan were subsequently overwhelmed. There is reason to hope from this that when the next World Cup comes round England will be serious competitors rather than mere bystanders.
If tours are to continue, all should contain three T20 matches: players and crowds are engaged by the game's shortest form. At present it is an international afterthought, with only the World Twenty20 seen as any use. England remain competent, and know both how to start and how to use the middle overs. A number of virtuoso hitters will stand them in good stead. Oh, and people appear to watch this form of the game more.
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