Strauss has to find feet if history is to be made
Captain desperately needs runs as England aim to turn three-match series on its head
Forget the latest wizard spinner for a moment. Saeed Ajmal might be, for now, the stuff of nightmares for England but the predicament facing these tourists is enshrined in precedent.
There have been 230 Test series of three matches going back to 1884. Of those, 125 have been won by the team which prevailed in the first match and only 10 by the side which lost it. On that basis England would seem to be a 22-1 chance to pull off what would now be a considerable triumph.
They can take succour from the fact that they have done it three times previously, and provided the teams which are first and last on the list. In 1888, W G Grace came charging to the rescue as captain after defeat to Australia in the opening tie, and, abetted by the spin of Bobby Peel and Johnny Briggs, administered two innings defeats.
If the memory of WG is not sufficient to inspire England 124 years on, they ought to be encouraged by the turnaround in New Zealand four years ago. Having been embarrassed in the opener in Hamilton they won the next two. Six of the players likely to be on duty tomorrow in the second Test at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium played in that series. They know what can be done.
It was in the final match in New Zealand that Andrew Strauss, in urgent need of runs, saved his immediate career with a stoic innings of 177, lasting eight hours. He is not quite in the desperate straits he was then but when he and his vice-captain, Alastair Cook, open the batting this week for the 100th time in a Test match he could certainly do with staying around for at least half the time he managed then.
Much has happened in the intervening four years. From being a batsman (he actually batted at three in New Zealand) whose star was on the wane he has become both the saviour of England cricket, taking them to places unimagined not long ago, and one of its most notable captains. But even legends have to contribute and Strauss has not been doing it frequently enough.
He has scored one hundred in his last 42 innings (compared to seven in his first 42) and his average since the start of last summer is down to 23.42. These are figures for the captain not seen since the days of Mike Brearley. Even when Strauss scored a measured 87 at Edgbaston only two Tests ago, it was overshadowed by Cook's 294.
If England are to come back against a blithely self-confident Pakistan, it is imperative they manage solid starts to their innings. Ajmal came on in the first Test in Dubai with early wickets already having fallen and it made his job much more straightforward.
"It has worked well," said Cook of the batsmen's enduring partnership yesterday. "We have got to know each other and our games really well because we are so similar. Against Australia at Brisbane we got 180 odd and at Lord's we got 170 odd. They were highlights which will stand out.
"He has always taken first ball because he was the senior partner and he still is. He's a world-class player and I hope it gives the other guys confidence when we do walk out that we have got some experience at the top of the order."
That experience has rarely been more vital to England. If they can restore England's batting fortunes, it is at least possible to think of them becoming the most durable of all Test opening partnerships. Only three pairs have done it more often (see table, above) and the next most enduring for England is Michael Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick, who walked out together 54 times.
Cook, who will be involved in the selection of the team, said: "It is very conceivable that England could go in with the same team but we could change as well. It's all about how we're going to win this game. When this team has lost in the last two years we have always managed to bounce back well. We have got characters in the side who like those kind of challenges."
England have now lost six of the 37 Test matches they have played since Strauss assumed the captaincy three years ago. Never have they been defeated twice in succession and on three of the previous five occasions they have won their next match.
The nearest equivalent to the position in which they find themselves – subcontinental pitches with a mystery spinner operating – came in Sri Lanka 11 years ago. England came from 1-0 behind, having been spooked by Muttiah Muralitharan's seven wickets in the first Test, and beat Sri Lanka. But the game was different and they were able to use their pads to repel Murali in a way they dare not do against Ajmal, or risk leg before with the Decision Review System lurking in wait.
They will simply have to make Ajmal work harder for his wickets. The obverse is that England must take their wickets more quickly. Graeme Swann, probably the key in England's second innings if they can accrue sufficient runs in their first, is likely to be the lone spinner in an unchanged side.
England might prefer two spinners but it is difficult to see how Monty Panesar can be fitted in. Cook said they would have another look at the pitch 24 hours ahead of the game before finalising the XI. Pakistan must be more settled.
Whether Swann can pull something off in the next two matches, he should escape the eventual fate of his forerunner, Bobby Peel. Having seen off Australia with 11 for 68 in the deciding Test and 24 wickets in the series to engineer the first of the great comebacks he was an English hero. Nine years later he urinated on the pitch while the worse for wear during a Championship match for Yorkshire, was helped off the pitch by the county's despotic captain, Lord Hawke, and never played again.
Hundred up: England openers reach milestone
Test first-wicket partnerships
Gordon Greenidge & Desmond Haynes: Matches: 89; Innings: 148; Agg: 6,482; Avg: 47.31; Best: 298
Matthew Hayden & Justin Langer: Matches: 64; Innings: 113; Agg: 5,654; Avg: 51.87; Best: 255
Sanath Jayasuriya & Marvan Atapattu: Matches: 69; Innings: 118; Agg: 4,492; Avg: 40.47; Best: 335
Andrew Strauss & Alastair Cook: Matches: 58; Innings: 99; Agg: 4,163; Avg: 42.92; Best: 229
Second test: probable teams
A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, E J G Morgan, M J Prior (wk), S C J Broad, G P Swann, C T Tremlett, J M Anderson
Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), Mohammad Hafeeez, Taufeeq Umar, Azhar Ali, Younis Khan, Asad Shafiq, Adnan Akmal (wk), Umar Gul, Abdur Rehman, Saeed Ajmal, Aizaz Cheema.
It is unfeasibly cold in Abu Dhabi – the coldest day for five years on Sunday – but that is hardly likely to make the pitch akin to Derby in May. It will be slow, probably take late turn, and patience will be needed by all parties.
Steve Davis (Aus) and Bruce Oxenford (Aus)
Javagal Srinath (India).
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