For England now, the damage is in danger of becoming terminal. In losing the second Test and the series to Pakistan on Saturday they displayed a vulnerability and timorousness which may eat away at their cricketing souls.
The nature of their astonishing defeat, being bowled out for 72 in pursuit of an eminently attainable target of 145, made a nonsense of their status as the world's premier Test side. The efficiency and skill they demonstrated on their way to the top ranking were nowhere to be seen.
In their place was enough confusion and angst to suggest that Kierkegaard should be brought in as a member of the backroom staff. Good batsmen, in the phrase, do not become bad batsmen overnight but in two successive matches England's top order has been dumbfounded by Pakistan's excellent spin bowling.
After Saeed Ajmal's foxy doosra exposed them in Dubai, it was the turn of his left-arm spinning comrade, Abdur Rehman, to pierce their groping bats in the Sheikh Zayed Stadium. Rehman took 6 for 25 in 61 balls, taking full advantage of a surface which fully suited his purpose. He made it difficult for the batsmen, with the ball keeping low and turning slowly, but they made it impossible.
England have lost all 40 of their wickets in the series in being beaten by 10 wickets and by 72 runs. Of those wickets, 36 have fallen to spin. In a sense it has been a return to the grand old tradition where England were less a cricket team than a music-hall act.
So bereft has been their middle order – Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, have contributed 53 runs between them – that it is as if the last three glorious years never happened. But happen they did and somehow it makes the present glaring defects inexplicable.
Andy Flower, the coach, has never made the mistake of being triumphalist in victory and he was not about to be despairing in defeat. It is the first time in his tenure that England have lost two successive Test matches, and on three of the previous five occasions that they had been beaten, the team had gone on to win the next match. When Pakistan were bowled out for 214 early in the afternoon, leaving England five sessions to acquire the necessary runs, it looked as though it would happen again.
"We weren't good enough against their spin bowlers," said Flower. "We didn't reverse the pressure. We didn't put them under pressure. I don't think we can get away from the fact that you have to work out a method and if that involves rethinking your strategy against them you've got to do that. I think some of them do have to do that. It's very tricky doing it mid-series and mid-career but some of the methods we've employed over the first two Tests haven't worked. One of the most important skills of an international sportsman is being able to adapt and adapt quickly. That is the challenge that some of the guys have."
It was generally assumed, at least in the dressing room, that England would manage the essential amendments between the first and second Tests and when they carved out a 70-run first-innings lead, they seemed to be on their way back. Monty Panesar's 6 for 62 in Pakistan's second innings, after three years out of the side, seemed to confirm that notion. Fewer than three hours later the series was gone, all 10 wickets falling for 51, the last five for four runs in 11 balls.The big trouble was that the more cautious trio among the batsmen confined themselves to strokelessness and therefore subjugation, and the more adventurous threesome occupied the crease for a total of 12 balls. While conceding the shortcomings, Flower was anxious to allay a witch-hunt which he probably sensed is the default position in English sport when this kind of disembowelling takes place.
"It's fair to say it was a mental thing," he said. "Remember, our guys have been very good at dealing with pressure for quite a long period of time. In no way should they be pilloried for not handling it [on Saturday]. It happens. I'm not embarrassed by losing this game.
"Sometimes you make mistakes, sometimes you're just not good enough and sometimes the opposition are better than you. I've got no doubt that our guys can handle pressure but [Saturday] wasn't a good example."
In rebuking England's performance, however, it would be remiss not to give Pakistan their due. Here are a team who were rocked to the core by a match-rigging scandal and have players in an English jail. They cannot play in their own country because of its insecure state. Ajmal now has 100 Test wickets at 27.31, none of them taken in Pakistan. Yet they have regrouped under Misbah-ul-Haq into a disciplined side with abundant skill and a sense of purpose, winning five and drawing two of their last seven Test series. As it became clearer by the wicket on Saturday that a sensational win was possible, Misbah could be seen making a calming gesture to his charges. He has been mightily impressive."They know these conditions inside out and I think they've done really well," said Flower. "In a way I'm happy for them, I'm happy for their coach and captain. Their country has gone through some really tough times and it's a good thing for them that they've had performances like this."
England's familiar problems away against sub-continental sides can rarely have been so prominent and with series imminent against Sri Lanka and India, Flower was not about to talk up whether they can perform adequately in Asia. "At the moment I think it's up for debate on the batting front but what I do know is that they're an excellent bunch of cricketers and men and I expect us to work it out and play better than we are." They have five more days to prove the point.
Abu Dhabi Scoreboard
Second Test (Fourth day of four): Pakistan beat England by 72 runs and lead three-Test series 2-0
Pakistan won toss
PAKISTAN First Innings 257 (Misbah-ul-Haq 84, Shafiq 58, Broad 4-47)
ENGLAND First Innings 327 (Cook 94, Trott 74, Broad 58no, Ajmal 4-108)
PAKISTAN Second Innings Overnight 125-4
Azhar Ali c Prior b Anderson 68
195 balls 8 fours
Asad Shafiq c Anderson b Panesar 43
138 balls 5 fours
†Adnan Akmal c Strauss b Broad 13
Abdur Rehman lbw b Swann 10
Saeed Ajmal c Anderson b Panesar 17
31 balls 1 four
Umar Gul not out 10
24 balls 1 six
Junaid Khan b Panesar 0
Extras (b5 lb6) 11
Total (99.2 overs) 214
Fall: 1-29, 2-29, 3-36, 4-54, 5-142, 6-170, 7-172, 8-198, 9-208.
Bowling: J M Anderson: 14-3-39-1 (4-2-7-0; 4-0-12-0; 2-0-12-0; 4-1-8-1), S C J Broad: 20-9-36-1 (2-0-7-0; 2-0-4-0; 3-3-0-0; 4-3-5-0; 4-1-8-0; 4-2-6-1; 1-0-6-0), M S Panesar: 38.2-18-62-6 (20-10-40-3; 5-2-4-0; 8-3-12-1; 5.2-3-6-2), G P Swann: 27-5-66-2 (3-1-7-1; 2-1-6-0; 4-2-6-0; 6-0-13-0; 2-0-3-0; 5-0-16-0; 5-1-15-1).
Progress: Azhar Ali: 50 off 143 balls (7 fours), 150 in 75.2 overs, Lunch: 198-7 in 92 overs (Abdur Rehman 10, Saeed Ajmal 11), 200 in 96.2 overs.
ENGLAND Second Innings
*A J Strauss lbw b Rehman 32
100 balls 3 fours
A N Cook c & b Hafeez 7
I R Bell b Ajmal 3
K P Pietersen lbw b Rehman 1
E J G Morgan b Rehman 0
†M J Prior c Shafiq b Ajmal 18
45 balls 1 four
I J L Trott lbw b Rehman 1
S C J Broad b Rehman 0
G P Swann lbw b Ajmal 0
J M Anderson c Gul b Rehman 1
M S Panesar not out 0
Extras (lb9) 9
Total (36.1 overs) 72
Fall: 1-21, 2-26, 3-33, 4-37, 5-56, 6-68, 7-68, 8-71, 9-72.
Bowling: Mohammad Hafeez: 8-3-11-1 (one spell), Umar Gul: 3-0-5-0 (one spell), Saeed Ajmal: 15-7-22-3 (one spell), Abdur Rehman 10.1-4-25-6 (one spell).
Progress: Tea: England 39-4 in 22 overs (Strauss 23, Prior 0), 50 in 24.6 overs.
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) & B N J Oxenford (Aus)
Third Umpire: B F Bowden (NZ)
Match Referee: Ahsan Raza (Pak)