One question above all seemed unlikely to be asked about the world's top Test team. But it was being put with understandable insistence last night: never mind the world, are this lot the best Test side in England?
Following a 3-0 whitewash in the series against Pakistan, a result as unexpected as it was deserved after they lost the third Test by 71 runs yesterday, the selectors have about a fortnight to provide their version of an answer. It would be perverse in the extreme to retain the players, the batsmen that is, who have failed so spectacularly in the past three weeks for another Asian assignment next month.
Yet if not them, then who else? Such has been the faith shown in the present top order, who had barely put a foot wrong for more than a year, that other candidates have never been required. Indeed, were it an election, their nomination papers would probably not have been submitted.
Presumably, the selectors have been monitoring possible replacements, should there ever be vacancies caused by retirement or, perhaps, an unexpected holiday. The composition of the England Lions, effectively the "A" team, gives heavy hints about their thinking. But none of the possible likely lads will be that likely.
The Lions' close season engagements have all been in the sub-continent, against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, but they have comprised entirely limited-overs matches. This deals with the probable conditions but not with the notion of playing long haul cricket.
England were quite dreadful again yesterday, not simply in the context of this match, which started, it should not be forgotten, with Pakistan being bowled out for 99, but also considering the manner in which their batsmen had performed before this tour. Players who had been so commanding for so long simply wilted before top class spinners with pitches in their favour.
The results have been catastrophic. Ian Bell, who arrived five weeks ago with a valid claim to being the best batsman in the world in the best team in the world, scored 49 runs in six innings. The fashion in which he was out yesterday, patting a long hop to extra cover, needed several viewings to confirm what he had done.
Kevin Pietersen, scorer of two double hundreds and an innings of 175 in the preceding 14 months, did slightly better than Bell with 66 runs. He was bowled through the gate yesterday, stretching forward and misjudging an off spinner from Saeed Ajmal, perhaps expecting the doosra.
How Ajmal has eaten into England's souls with Abdur Rehman, the left-arm spinner, making some incursions of his own in that direction. The rot started 15 minutes in to the first session of the rubber when Alastair Cook cut an off-spinner from Mohammad Hafeez into the wicketkeeper's gloves.
The tourists never recovered. What Hafeez began, Ajmal and Rehman went on to finish. In truth, after losing the first Test, they ought to have won the next two. In Abu Dhabi, in the second match, they needed only 145 to win, a tricky but eminently surmountable chase. In Dubai, in the third match, they bowled out Pakistan for 99 on the opening day, having them 53 for 7 at lunch.
The measure of the subsequent Pakistan recovery is that it had been 105 years since a side being dismissed for a double-figure score in the first innings of a Test had gone on to win. They did it by assembling the most worthwhile partnership of the series between Younis Khan and Azhar Ali.
Towards the end, England were slightly better at picking what was on offer but not so much that their total went beyond 252 yesterday. It was only the second time in the series that they had made more than 200 (their previous totals were 192, 160, 327, 72 and 141) but was achieved only because of some mild tail-wagging as their pursuit of a winning target of 324 swiftly turned into a mere pipedream. England assembled only three partnerships of more than 50 in the series and one of those was for the eighth wicket.
Nobody made a hundred, there were four individual fifties, though none yesterday when England arrived at the ground with all second-innings wickets intact and apparently prepared for a last hurrah. It got no further than the sixth over of the morning when Andrew Strauss, their captain, was lbw to Rehman on the back foot.
For the third time in the series, Strauss called for a review and for the third time was rebuffed. It does not quite match Misbah-ul-Haq's five unsuccessful reviews in five innings but it is still slightly redolent of the captain's privilege.
Strauss's stock has fallen in the last month, though he is fortunate that it was at an all-time high when he started. The tour to Sri Lanka and the matches that follow in the summer, especially against South Africa, have assumed a huge importance for him. For the first time since he took the job three years ago, it is possible to think of Strauss leaving it at a time not entirely of his own choosing.
Jonathan Trott went just before lunch, top-edging a sweep against Ajmal, and for a while after it, Pietersen threatened to do something special again. It was not to be and shortly after his sudden departure, Alastair Cook was also out. Cook had been typically stoic but never looked wholly sure of what he was doing. Dropped for the second time in the innings in the morning, it appeared that it would be his day when he edged one that came out of the rough and was superbly caught by a flying Younis at slip to his left.
Bell had another aberrant moment, Eoin Morgan who looked at ease for the first time, charged at Umar Gul and was caught behind. It was an inauspicious end to an innings that displayed some guts and which may not be enough to save Morgan if the selectors feel they have to act.
Ravi Bopara may be given a chance to resurrect his career – again. If the selectors are looking for other names, Samit Patel, slightly older than other candidates, may be worth a call – a batting all-rounder who can offer some left-arm spin. Jos Buttler has scored heavily for the Lions on their one-day tour of Sri Lanka, and made 64 yesterday to add to his two earlier hundreds, to help them to a series win against the hosts' "A" team.
Buttler, Patel and the left-arm spinner Danny Briggs are all likely to be named today in the senior one-day squad which will play against Pakistan in the UAE starting next week. They may or may not be playing for something else. Nobody should suggest that Buttler, at 21, is remotely ready for Test cricket, or that Patel, at 27, can offer a panacea. But selectors have to select, sometimes they have to play a hunch and at all times pick the best team in England.
Timeline: how the final day unfolded
6.25am (UK time) Strauss 26 (48-1)Abdur Rehman hits England captain on the back leg, and an appeal cannot save him.
7.45am Trott 18
Trott top-edges a sweep from Saeed Ajmal, and is caught at deep backward square.
9.19am Pietersen 18 (116-3)
An off-break from Ajmal turns through Pietersen's generous gate and bowls him.
9.28am Cook 49 (119-4) Younis Khan's brilliant slip catch ends Cook's resistance: a third wicket for Ajmal.
10.17am Bell 10
(156-5) An off-form Bell gently slaps an Umar Gul long-hop to Asad Shafiq at cover: bizarre dismissal.
10.28am Morgan 31 (159-6) Morgan is unsure whether to play forward or back to Gul, and edges behind to Akmal.
11.17am Broad 18 (196-7)
Another for Gul: Broad tries to hit the new ball out of the ground but is caught at long-off.
11.32am Swann 1 (203-8)Swann edges an attempted drive off Gul, and Asad Shafiq catches him sharply at point.
12.17pm Anderson 9 (237-9)An Ajmal delivery straightens on Anderson, who tries to cut but edges to Younis at slip.
12.36pm Panesar 8 (252 all out) Panesar misses a sweep from Rehman, is leg before, and Pakistan win by 71 runs and 3-0.
1 England: rating 118
2 South Africa: 117
3 India: 111
4 Australia: 111
5 Pakistan: 108
South Africa will overtake England in first place if they beat New Zealand 3-0 in their three Test away series next month.
England play a two-Test series in Sri Lanka in late March and early April.
Pakistan won toss
PAKISTAN First innings 99 (Broad 4-36)
ENGLAND First innings 141 (Strauss 56, Rehman 5-40)
PAKISTAN Second innings 365 (Ali 157, Khan 127, Panesar 5-124)
ENGLAND Second Innings Overnight 36-0
*A J Strauss lbw b Rehman 26
76 balls 2 fours
A N Cook c Khan b Ajmal 49
187 balls 4 fours
I J L Trott c Rehman b Ajmal 18
64 balls 2 fours
K P Pietersen b Ajmal 18
45 balls 1 six 1 four
I R Bell c Shafiq b Gul 10
E J G Morgan c Akmal b Gul 31
48 balls 1 six 3 fours
†M J Prior not out 49
58 balls 5 fours
S C J Broad c Umar b Gul 18
24 balls 2 fours
G P Swann c Shafiq b Gul 1
J M Anderson c Khan b Ajmal 9
M S Panesar lbw b Rehman 8
Extras (b4 lb8 nb3) 15
Total (97.3 overs) 252
Fall: 1-48, 2-85, 3-116, 4-119, 5-156, 6-159, 7-196, 8-203, 9-237.
Bowling: Umar Gul 20-5-61-4 (2nb) (4-1-11-0; 7-2-9-0; 9-2-41-4), Aizaz Cheema 4-0-9-0 (2-0-5-0; 2-0-4-0), Mohammad Hafeez 5-2-6-0 (1-1-0-0; 4-1-6-0), Abdur Rehman: 41.3-10-97-2 (37-10-82-1; 1-0-7-0; 3.3-0-8-1), Saeed Ajmal: 27-9-67-4 (2-1-2-0; 20-7-42-3; 1-0-9-0; 1-0-5-0; 3-1-9-1).
Fourth day Progress: 50 26.3 overs, Lunch: 89-2 49 overs (Cook 41, Pietersen 1), 100 53.6 overs, 150 72.3 overs, Tea: 173-6 80 overs (Prior 10, Broad 4), 200 82.3 overs, 250 96.6 overs.
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) & S J A Taufel (Aus)
Third Umpire: S K Tarapore (Ind)Reuse content