England must fight their fear of Ajmal
Pakistan off-spinner's threat can be countered with a more positive mindset
Somehow, England's batsmen have to find a way to repel Saeed Ajmal. They have four days before the Second Test begins in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, and most of the signs in Dubai during the First were that Ajmal had stormed the walls, pillaged their techniques and invaded their souls.
His 10 for 97 in the match, which included a first-innings return of 7 for 55, gave Pakistan the sort of start to the series that many observers had predicted for England. Bowlers, especially ones of the most sophisticated calibre such as Ajmal, are entitled to have their days in the sun (or, indeed, their days in the desert) but there is an added dimensionto this.
During the usual banter in the days before the series, the contest within a contest, between Ajmal and his fellow off-spinner Graeme Swann, was revisited many times. Swann did not bowl at all badly as far as the figures show, with 4 for 107 but Ajmal was allowed to gain a resounding early triumph.
By their own repeated admission England batted badly – the hair shirt is now part of their practice kit – and part of the concern is that they did so because they were worried they might not be able to deal with Ajmal and thus got out to balls that were not exactly menacing.
"Yes, that plays on peoples' minds, no doubt," said Andy Flower, the England coach, who was as nonplussed as everybody else as some of the world's leading batsmen were dumbfounded enough to play an array of poorly tailored shots.
Jonathan Trott was one of only two England players not to be dismissed by Ajmal in the match and alone in not falling to spin in either innings. He wanted to talk up Ajmal yesterday but not too much, because to do otherwise would be laughably disrespectful to a bowler who has just climbed all over you and also make it difficult to shake him off.
"It's similar to when we lost a year ago at the Waca and the talk was of how are we going to play Mitchell Johnson," Trott said. "I think we did OK there, so I don't think it's too far away or unachievable for the guys to be able to do that in the next two Test matches.
"He's a bit different, he's a guy who bowls different variations, different speeds, he's a very good bowler. As a batting unit we have got to put partnerships together."
Trott faced 102 balls from Ajmal during his unforgettable innings of 184 at Lord's in 2010, Stuart Broad another 145 while making 169, and Ajmal did not look so menacing then. Things might have changed, Ajmal might have become a different bowler – with the addition of something called the teesra for a start – though Trott did not think so.
"I think he has the doosra and just the offie," he said. "It's a case of how you go about playing spin. Everyone is a little bit different, some like to play back, some like to play forward, some like to play on the off side or the on side, everyone goes about it in their way. It's important you don't take anything for granted, you don't feel you're really reading this guy well, because then he can bowl you a ball that bounces a little bit differently.
"I am not going to stand here and say you can't do anything. I'm not going to say you can't come down the wicket to him or try and sweep him, you have just got to play each ball on its merits."
Which is precisely what England signally failed to do last week at a ground that has now seen two positive results in its three-Test history. What they have to deduce is how they can avoid making the same mistake again. But there will be no remedial work on style; they have to clear their minds and be certain they are not afraid of what they about to face.
The Johnson parallel from late 2010 is a good one. Johnson looked as though he might sweep all before him after swinging England to defeat in Perth, but took 6 for 302 in the rest of the series. Ajmal might not possess as fragile a temperament. The restorative work in that direction is all England's. They have done it before. It would be among the most glorious achievements of a team likely to be unchanged to repeat the trick.
Flexible opinions on action man
England seem to be getting themselves in a tizz over Saeed Ajmal's bowling action. They are not, as it were, reading from the same law book in discussing an issue raised by Bob Willis during television coverage of the First Test.
Willis's beef was not with Ajmal but with the ICC's generous regulation governing flexibility in actions. Matt Prior, the first England player asked about it, was unequivocal: "His action is not something we are concerned about." Andrew Strauss was dismissive. Asked if England were doubtful he said: "No." But Andy Flower inadvertently allowed conspiracy theorists to flourish by saying on Friday: "I've got my own private views."
Yesterday, with the non-story still running at home, Jonathan Trott said: "Obviously there's going to be a bit of speculation and stuff around his action. Whenever you're successful there will be. So, as a team the guys aren't really too fussed." As clear so far as England's strategy against Ajmal.
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