Most things in England's garden were rosy as they left Birmingham yesterday. In straightforward fashion – when there was mild potential for mayhem – they went 2-0 up in the series against Pakistan with two to play.
From the first day, when Pakistan made a mess of their first innings, the course was set, and though by the end it had at least taken on the shape of an authentic Test match, there was simply far too much ground for the tourists to make up. So, England duly won in the early afternoon of the fourth day by nine wickets – their sixth successive victory.
It is five years since they established their record sequence of eight wins and they now have a chance of equalling that by the end of the summer. Beat it and they will be 1-0 up in the Ashes, having defeated Australia at Brisbane in November. The garden would be fragrant then all right.
There is, however, just the faint whiff of something less alluring in the soil. The one wicket that England lost yesterday in their pursuit of 118 was that of their opening batsman, Alastair Cook. With a Test average of above 40 and 12 hundreds, his international career, which began when he was 21, has been distinguished.
Earlier this year, he started the present run of wins by leading the team to a 2-0 win in Bangladesh, in which he also scored two centuries. But this summer, since he returned to the ranks, he has now made 100 runs in seven innings.
His innings of four yesterday – the runs courtesy of a thick, uncontrolled edge past slips – was terminated with all three stumps splayed as a ball from Mohammad Aamer kept low and slid through his crease-bound defensive stroke. Cook will have averted his eyes from the fallen timber as he turned and went on his way. That sort of scene makes a batsman feel humiliated.
It cannot continue like this, of course. Cook has to start scoring runs soon or face what all out-of-form batsmen face. This little run, in which his top score has been 29, has not been aided by a bunch of unhelpful pitches where the likelihood of receiving a ball with your name on it has increased tenfold. But good batsmen are paid to keep out good balls and when they fail to do so doubts begin creeping on all sides.
England will presumably persevere with Cook for the rest of the summer, partly because they have no option this far down the road. He has not yet done enough to be dropped and then, if he were to fail at The Oval in the third Test beginning a week tomorrow, there would be only one Test of the summer to go. It would be a nonsense then to omit the man the selectors intend to help grind down Australia four months hence. But a quandary is emerging.
It might have been greater still had Cook's opening partner, the captain Andrew Strauss, not been spared three times by Pakistan yesterday. Who knows, had he been held by Zulqarnain Haider when he offered a sharp chance behind in Saeed Ajmal's first over, when he was on 10 and the total on 17 for 1, there still might have been some way for the tourists somehow to fashion an astonishing victory. It is the tendency at these sort of moments to suggest that stranger things have happened. Well, they haven't.
But Strauss escaped as he did twice more, when giving Zulqarnain a similarly hard chance on 38 and again when his miscued drive went high in the air over mid-off from where Mohammad Asif made a porridge of the opportunity. Strauss, who finished unbeaten on 53, will have been grateful for these runs and he, like Cook, will look forward to a more benign surface at The Oval.
By comparison, Jonathan Trott was positively serene in his 53 not out, measuring the innings perfectly and playing some pleasant drives off both feet. The second-wicket partnership was unbroken on 107 when Strauss streaked the winning run with an inside edge past the wicketkeeper.
Trott, with two half-centuries in the match on a difficult surface, might have been a contender for the man-of-the-match award but that understandably went to Graeme Swann for his Test best 6 for 65 in a total of 37 overs, which contained 20 maidens. Swann had a pitch on which he was able to operate properly and, having bowled only two overs in the previous three completed opposition innings, he responded superbly.
The thought keeps recurring that in those spinning fingers and that lantern jaw lie England's best hopes of retaining the Ashes this winter. He will have plenty of bowling to do in the remainder of this summer.
Before play began yesterday, England were overwhelming favourites, though with a rider in brackets after the odds-on column stating that Pakistan could yet pull off a remarkable victory if their last wicket could add another 40 or 50 runs. But their innings ended with the 11th ball of the day, with a mere five added to their overnight lead of 112, when Mohammad Asif steered Stuart Broad to gully.
The formality ensued, ensured by Pakistan's fielding which is poor and has suffered badly by comparison with England's efficiency. But if England's fielding is disciplined, their character was less admirable when they were put under pressure for the only time on the third day.
Collectively, they did not react to Pakistan's fightback as a team happy in their skin, which England claim to be, should have done. Broad must begin to curb his excesses and perhaps the fact that he was fined half of his match fee may persuade him. He pleaded guilty to breaching the ICC code of conduct by "throwing the ball at a player in an inappropriate manner". That penultimate day of the match should have taught Broad and the team something more about themselves and where they are heading, perhaps much more ultimately than the sixth successive triumph.
Second Test: Fourth day of five: England beat Pakistan by nine wickets; Pakistan won toss
Pakistan: First Innings 72 (J Anderson 4-20; S Broad 4-38)
England: First Innings 251 (K Pietersen 80, J Trott 55; Saeed Ajmal 5-82)
Pakistan: Second Innings Overnight: 291-9 (Zulqarnain Haider 88, Saeed Ajmal 50)
Umar Gul not out 13, 22 balls 1 four
Mohammad Asif c Pietersen b Broad 14, 30 balls 3 fours
Extras (b 16, lb 14) 30
Total (117.5 overs) 296
Fall 1-1 (Butt), 2-53 (Farhat), 3-54 (Ali), 4-76 (Malik), 5-82 (Akmal), 6-101 (Amin), 7-153 (Aamer), 8-268 (Ajmal), 9-269 (Haider), 10-296 (Asif).
Bowling J Anderson 28-13-62-1 (5-4-1-1, 1.1-1-0-0, 5.5-3-13-0, 7-4-8-0, 5-1-17-0, 4-0-23-0), S Broad 28.5-8-66-2 (7-2-10-0, 6-2-20-0, 5-1-16-0, 6-2-12-1, 4-1-8-0, 0.5-0-2-1), S Finn 16-5-57-1 (4-3-4-0, 6-2-24-1, 6-0-29-0), G Swann 37-20-65-6 (24-17-23-4, 1-0-1-0, 4-1-15-0, 7-2-21-2, 1-0-5-0), P Collingwood 7-2-14-0 (one spell), K Pietersen 1-0-2-0 (one spell).
England: Second Innings
*A J Strauss not out 53, 114 balls 4 fours
A N Cook b Aamer 4, 7 balls 1 four
I J LTrott not out 53, 101 balls 6 fours
Extras (b 5, nb 3) 8
Total (1 wkt, 36.3 overs) 118
Fall 1-7 (Cook).
Did not bat K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, E J G Morgan, †M J Prior, G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, S T Finn.
Bowling M Aamer 11-1-31-1 (nb2) (8-1-16-1, 3-0-15-0), M Asif 6-0-20-0 (3-0-12-0, 3-0-8-0), S Ajmal 14.3-1-42-0 (8-0-29-0, 6.3-1-13-0), S Malik 5-0-20-0 (nb1) (1-0-2-0, 4-0-18-0).
Progress Fourth day: 50 in 17.5 overs, Lunch 71-1 (Strauss 37, Trott 26) 23.0 overs, 100 in 31.5 overs.
Umpires S J Davis (Aus) & M Erasmus (SA).
TV replay umpire A L Hill (NZ).
Match referee J W Lloyds.Reuse content