Footwork and technique can dig England out of a hole
Graham Thorpe's masterplan for how to combat spin in Asia has never been more apt
As the evidence of the series confirms, England are in a spin. It may be the mother of all spins, driven by a formidable opposition bowler and complicated by strange pitches and modern technology.
There never was going to be an easy way to play the doosra-wielding off spinner Saeed Ajmal on Asian pitches, and his orthodox slow-left-arm counterpart, Abdur Rehman, has hardly been less potent. The UAE may be a home away from home but it has done very nicely thank you.
It is not that England were not prepared in their way, simply that they have been taken by surprise and subsequently uncertain what they should do. One man who knows better than most is Graham Thorpe, now the lead batting coach with the England Performance Centre but also the most adroit English player of spin in recent times.
"There is a balance to be achieved between understanding your technique properly in that part of the world and then actually implementing it," said Thorpe. "A wicket has fallen and you're walking out over the rope, and if you don't get your composure right, you don't implement the right technique at the right time, you can all fall down."
Since Thorpe was speaking before this series started it was as if he understood the pitfalls that lay in wait. He is at present in Sri Lanka with the England Lions, presumably trying to avert the kind of calamity in the future that has befallen the present champions of the Test world.
Thorpe played two, perhaps three, of the greatest of all England innings on the sub-continent. In the gloom of Karachi in late 2000 he made a serenely composed 64 not out for England to gain an improbable series win against Pakistan, Saqlain Mushtaq and Shahid Afridi and all.
Three months later in Colombo against Sri Lanka, he was never better, scoring 113 not out and 32 not out in a magnificent four-wicket win which clinched the series. It was a master class in dealing with slow bowling in alien conditions, not the least of which was the oppressive heat.
"Fitness is important because you're concentrating for longer periods of time but technique is massively important because the ball spins," said Thorpe. "Whether it's Test cricket or one-day cricket you get men round the bat and you get all the pressure to score so the technique has to be spot on.
"We have to work very hard on that and that is being comfortable with footwork, potentially coming out of the crease. It's not always about just coming out of the crease, it's about how well you can actually push back, which is just as important in Asia."
England's batsmen are well aware of these two components, sitting deep, getting forward. But it has been made difficult for them to settle because of Ajmal's tendency to fire it in straight at the start of an innings. It has been quick and turning just enough.
"The one thing I wasn't always comfortable with was coming down the pitch," said Thorpe. "I'm quite keen on guys being in the crease, but understanding if they need to come out the crease how they're going to do that and more importantly how they can rotate the strike by getting deeper in the crease as well.
"Picking length is crucial against spin and once you have picked length, technique can get you forward. But the minute he is not forward someone like Rahul Dravid is very deep in the crease working with the leg side but keeping the off side open as well."
Scoring options have to be kept open and this was Thorpe's major asset. He knew that he had to keep beavering away, never allowing the spinners to settle into a groove, adjusting on the hoof, which is what England failed to do in the first two Tests.
"Yes, you need to understand the sweep shot, you need to know where the big shots are and you need to know where your release shots are and breaking your wrists on shots. Whenever you go to someone else's country you've got to look at some of their own players and see what they do right. You're not going to play exactly like it but you've got to pick up little bits of what they might do well, what they do slightly better than us that we can actually take from their game and put into ours.
"We cannot be robots, you have got to get the timing of your movements right for each particular bowler and I think exposure to this at a young age is good."
In a spin: How batsmen can combat twirlers
Andrew Strauss The back foot has been the making of him as a Test batsman. But being crease-bound here has encouraged the bowler to skid it in and limit his scoring options. A touch more of last year's one-day Strauss, where he was not afraid to hit down the ground, may be necessary.
Alastair Cook He also plays a waiting game, which worked in the first innings in Abu Dhabi. Has not entirely worked out Ajmal but high level of obduracy has meant he has overcome any limitations. Of his 10 fours in his second Test 94, five were cuts backward of square, four clips through midwicket.
Jonathan Trott Another of the few successes with 49 and 74 in successive matches. Prefers the on-side as ever but has tried to come forward as well as nudge behind square on the leg side. Scored only 10 of his runs against Saeed Ajmal from 38 balls in his Abu Dhabi first innings, seven of them singles behind square leg.
Kevin PietersenHas been desperate to get forward to kill the spin and impose himself. But he has not read the length well and has tended to play with bat across pad. His long reach can only help.
Ian Bell Has hardly been round long enough in three of the innings but has yet to convince in picking Ajmal. In theory, he can press forward as well as play deep in the crease, but has been caught between the two areas.
Eoin Morgan Needs to work out what his strengths are. Best sweeper in the world but was out to the shot in the initial collapse in Dubai when he misread length and was lbw. Seemed to cloud his judgement in Abu Dhabi, curtailing options, though Ajmal's line is making it difficult. Looked at sea, planted to crease, in second innings.
Matt Prior Played beautifully in first Test, getting forward when he could and playing straight on a pitch that needed it. Ignored that for some reason in second match. Looks sounder than most.
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