Prior gives straight answer to dangers posed by Ajmal

 

Abu Dhabi

England are desperate to move on from their abject defeat in the first Test. The 80-mile road trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi yesterday should have helped them enormously, the exchange of one opulent desert sheikhdom for another providing a journey designed to put this oddest of international cricket tours into perspective.

Whether it will be anything like enough to transform their fortunes in the second Test, which starts on Wednesday, is open to serious doubt. How perceptions have changed after a single match, in truth a solitary bowling spell, as a result of which the man who delivered it has now become officially the world's best spinner.

The world's No 1 team have spent the greater part of their waking hours since – and presumably may have had a few nightmares – trying to come up with a solution to Saeed Ajmal. The bogeyman is coming to get them.

A week ago, England were chipper, well prepared and on the verge of a series which would consolidate their status. They were clear favourites to win the three-match series and Pakistan's recent improvement would be given a reality check.

It was a theory which did not make it to lunch on the first day of the contest and suddenly it is difficult to see how the losers can get back. Pakistan, victors in three days in the first Test, are holding all the aces and in Ajmal suddenly possess the most prized asset in cricket.

 



England's minds may be taken off their woes by the arrival yesterday of their families. There were more pushchairs around their hotel than cricket bags and if there is anything more demanding than Ajmal's doosra it may be youngsters who have missed their daddy.

The perennial question has been asked of whether the families will affect performance and another loss would reopen the debate. Timing, however, is everything in sport and this may be a case in point. When WAGs and kids arrived on last winter's tour, Australia were demolished.

Matt Prior, the only England player to score a half-century in the opening match, discussed the malfunctioning batting unit yesterday. He did not try to put a gloss on matters, but England have to believe they can approach Ajmal this week as though he was not an ancient Sanskrit manuscript that needed interpreting.

"You have to have a clarity, that's the important thing, certainly if someone can spin it both ways," he said. "It makes it tricky and he is quite tough to pick. If you aren't picking him you have to find the way that gives you the best chance to survive long enough that you start seeing his action better. Whether that's trying to sit in as long as possible or attack and put the pressure back on the bowler, that's a very individual thing. One of the things I've learnt over the years on the subcontinent is that playing straight is a huge thing, especially with the spin and the reverse swing.

"The other thing is making sure your footwork's good, especially against spin. Because the ball comes down slower people tend to move slower and it's really important that you keep your energy in your legs, so that if you don't quite get it right and pick the length up you can still adapt or react rather than be planted and getting out."

All this made sense but too many of England's batsmen panicked last week and that, in turn, made it easier for Pakistan's other bowlers, whom they will ignore at their peril. But the fuss surrounding Ajmal refuses to dissipate after his 10 for 97.

The focus on the legality of his action has been a sideshow England could have done without. "It won't be an issue in our dressing room, because we won't allow it to be," Prior said. But as with all slow bowlers who have a touch of mystery to them, it is about more than the bowling; it is the whole theatre around them.

"I remember playing Muttiah Muralitharan in Sri Lanka and one of the big things then were the first 20 balls," said Prior. "They all felt frantic, hectic, he bowled very quickly at the new batter, which Ajmal does very similarly. He definitely puts it on you and makes you react quickly.

"You get through those first 20 and that period of men around the bat, diving around, the noise and oohs and aahs, then suddenly the game slows down. You start seeing his wrist better and you get into the rhythm of the game, but that initial period when you get in, you have to find a way of trying to get through it. Ajmal had a good day. He may get wickets throughout the series, but we have to make sure that he has to bowl a lot of overs to get those wickets."

As usual, England are giving nothing away about their team for the second Test. There have been hints from who knows where that Steve Finn might replace Chris Tremlett, but that would be perverse since Tremlett bowled perfectly adequately – Pakistan's first innings was the first Test innings in which he failed to take a wicket – and it was the batsmen who cost England the match.

Consideration may be given to playing two spinners but in the two previous Tests in Abu Dhabi, both high-scoring draws, Pakistan have played three seamers, one specialist spinner and Mohammad Hafeez to fill in with his off-breaks. This time they will probably stick to what helped them to prevail last week – two seamers, two spinners and Hafeez. It is not the personnel that England need to change – yet. It is something much more fundamental.

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