'Shocked' Flower trusts batsmen to work Ajmal out
Sooner or later on their travels in Asia, England were bound to be ambushed again by spin. History dictates that there is always another mystery man lying in wait, ready to ensnare them in a web of intrigue leading to disaster.
Saeed Ajmal is but the latest in the line. He was not exactly an unforeseen assailant, since his 50 Test wickets last year were more than any other bowler. But nobody expected him to instigate such carnage on the first day of the series against Pakistan and by so doing create doubts which may not be easily overcome in the four days available before the second Test starts in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
"It was a bit of a shock," said Andy Flower, England's coach, yesterday in the wake of England's 10-wicket defeat, in which Ajmal had match figures of 10 for 97. "Look, we played poorly and we particularly batted poorly. Test cricket is a tough game and if you keep on batting like that you will be punished. Pakistan were good enough to do so."
Flower was a brilliant player of spin bowling in subcontinental conditions and he developed his own idiosyncratic style for combating it. He cannot simply hand over the manual for that on the road to Abu Dhabi, for it does not work like that. There is no catch-all way to play Ajmal, though the worrying aspect of England's capitulation is that most of their batsmen seemed to have no pre-ordained approach and unfurled hurried shots which hinted at panic.
"Each individual will have his own method against spin and even those individuals might play at the start of their innings differently," said Flower. "Sometimes attacking, sometimes looking to get off strike, sometimes sitting in if they have to, sometimes waiting to see what is bowled to them. The variations to an innings are infinite. I don't think you can blanket-plan because everyone's strengths are different and certainly the conditions are all different. Usually the guys make their own decisions and history suggests that they make good decisions."
But during the two days on which England batted during the first Test, which lasted only three, the batsmen repeatedly chose the wrong option. Often, it was as if they had not considered that there were options. If a coach has a role at a time like this it is to clear his players' confused minds and ensure that Ajmal is not already viewed as an irrepressible foe.
The spinner was deadly accurate but turned the ball only minimally. He gave the England batsmen inches and they tried to hit him yards. His skill lies in several areas. Ignore the so-called teesra, which was trumpeted in the ballyhoo before the series. Ajmal has an off-break and a doosra as his prime incisive tools, he has a quick wrist and can also cause hesitation by his apparent stop at the crease with the arm already coming over. But he was too easily gifted wickets by England.
His performance allowed him to move up eight places in the Test bowling rankings yesterday and he is now the top-rated spinner ahead of Graeme Swann, his English off-break counterpart. Since Swann's return of four wickets was perfectly adequate, he might feel badly done to. But Ajmal's was not only the better return, he was awarded extra points for doing it against some of the world's top-rated batsmen.
"I don't want to pretend that scoring Test runs is an easy thing, it's not," said Flower. "People work incredibly hard to get Test runs to put sides in a winning position. However in this instance we badly under-performed with the bat and even though the ball wasn't turning much we didn't deal with it skilfully and we made poor decisions.
"We made it look harder than it was, to be quite frank. Most good spinners bowl a good length and don't give you much to work with. He's a good spinner and he certainly bowled a good length which creates doubt as to whether you should get forward or back."
In Flower's tenure as coach, England have twice come back from catastrophic defeats to win the series, both times against Australia. At Headingley in 2009, they were beaten in three days by an innings and 80 runs but a week later came back to win the Ashes at the Oval. At Perth in 2010, they just took the match into the fourth day in losing by 267 runs and a few days later were all over their opponents in Melbourne.
This is a different problem, however, in completely unfamiliar terrain. If Ajmal is England's chief antagonist, they also have to come to terms with Umar Gul, a master of reverse swing, and Abdur Rehman, a left-arm spinner.
Soon enough, questions will be asked about the form of the England captain, Andrew Strauss. Actually, they were yesterday. Naturally enough Flower parried them, easily enough, because Strauss has scored 11 of his 19 Test hundreds away from England and averages nearly 45.
Strauss and Alastair Cook will open the batting for the 100th time in the second Test, all but double more than any other England pair. They have shared 11 century partnerships and it was only two matches ago that they put on 186 at Edgbaston. But England have lost their first wicket with the score not beyond 10 seven times in the last 11 innings. The team need better starts now or the threat of Ajmal will be the greater.
Being the No 1-ranked team may give England succour in the next few days, though as Flower said: "They don't sit in their rooms, look at themselves in the mirror and say, 'Aren't we good?'"
They will not have looked at the projected rankings either, which show that if they were to lose this series 3-0 and South Africa were to inflict a similar defeat on New Zealand in March the reign at the top would be over before it had begun. Now that would prompt not looking into the mirror but into their souls.
Coach refuses to chuck in his two penn'orth
The chucking row that never was appears to have been buried. England recognise that they were beaten in the first Test because they played Saeed Ajmal like idiots, not because there was anything untoward about his action. It is a talking point, however, and Andy Flower may unwittingly have added to the debate yesterday.
Asked about the action, he said: "I don't think that has got into the guys' heads. Our job is to deal with whatever bowler bowls against us and the ICC's job is to police the game. I've got my own private views and talking about them here and now isn't going to help the situation."
Which led to all manner of speculation, but Flower was not about to be pressed on what precisely he meant. "I repeat what I said, I've got more important matters to think about, and that is getting us ready for the next Test."
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