England's batsmen sat down yesterday morning and told each other where they were going wrong. It was a chat with the potential to last longer than the Australian Open men's tennis final. Come to think of it, six hours might not have been enough.
"As a batting unit we wanted to sit down and talk about it before we came to practice," said one of the under-achieving order, Ian Bell, yesterday. "About how we want to practise and how we want to take our game over the next 12 months. There is a lot of subcontinent cricket coming up."
The players who carried all before them for two years have undoubtedly surprised themselves with the depth of their failures so far in the Test series against Pakistan. They reached a nadir in being defeated for the second successive match last Saturday when they were all out for 72.
Bell said there had to be brutal honesty in dealing with the shortcomings against spin which manifested themselves in two different ways in the first two Tests. In the first, England played too many strokes too early; in the second, chasing a target of 145 to level the series, they were virtually moribund for long periods.
Whether the long, dark morning of the soul is sufficient to eradicate the deficiencies – "should I play forward, should I play back? Oh, sod it" – in time for the third match which begins on Friday must be doubtful. Surprised by the relentless accuracy and masterful length of the Pakistani spinners, England might still be in two minds.
"We have sat down and spoken about things that we need to improve and we need to start doing," Bell said. "That might not happen by the next Test but we have Sri Lanka coming up and India, so we have to talk about it now, we have to be honest, get it out and get it done. There is no point saying we were great the last two years and nothing is wrong. We don't just have meetings for the sake of it – there has to be a point in getting it out, then take it into the nets and into the Test."
England were split into two separate groups at nets yesterday where the focus was almost entirely in facing local spin bowlers. The fact that four of the top six – Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Eoin Morgan and Bell – have made 162 runs between them in 16 innings – casts doubt on the quality of their preparation. But although they had previously come across Saeed Ajmal, perhaps nothing can replicate the conditions.
"We worked really hard and knew that we were going to come up against two seamers and three spinners, and I knew I was going to be starting against spin all the time," Bell said. "The pace of the spin has taken me a bit by surprise. Credit to Pakistan, they have played some good cricket but we can't say that we haven't made mistakes or played good enough cricket."
The most perilous time, as the batsmen no doubt shuddered when they held their frank discussions, is early in the innings. It always is for batsmen, of course, but Ajmal and, to a lesser extent, the left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman have brought a new dimension. They are firing it in quickly, offering no width and making it imperative for batsmen to play with their bats. It is easier said than done to get forward and if you do and misread the delivery, as Bell has twice, it's curtains.
"They've bowled particularly well at the new batter coming in," Bell said. "They've bowled at a good pace, it's real quick spin. You have to work hard. Batting in the subcontinent you have to get through those first 20 to 25 deliveries then things seem to come that little bit easier.
"I like to use my feet. I'd like to be able to do that to Ajmal but I just haven't been in there long enough to put my game plan to the test. But everyone has played long enough to know their strengths and weaknesses." It is perhaps time to show one instead of the other.
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