Suddenly England have a series to win. It was not meant to be like this. It was meant to be a summer of repetitive, crushing victory as preparation to land the bigger prize this winter.
That serene progress towards the Ashes came to a shuddering halt at The Oval last week. Pakistan, who had been the most obliging of stooges, unexpectedly won the third Test to give them the opportunity to level the rubber in the fourth and final match which starts at Lord's today.
Their victory by four wickets after England had won the first two Tests by a country mile has provoked a series of questions about the state of the home team which essentially come down to two. These are: "Are England any good after all?" and "Are they good enough to beat Australia away from home?"
What happens in the next five days will not have any direct bearing on the outcome of the Ashes but it will help to provide answers. By losing last week and batting as incompetently as they did twice, albeit against high-class bowling, England confirmed that they are still a long way from the finished article, still eminently capable of poor performances.
"It wasn't the worst since taking charge as we've had some poor performances, but we lost a game and that was disappointing because we should have been better than that," said their captain, Andrew Strauss, yesterday. "There are lessons to learn from The Oval. There is a steely determination about the group to prove that was a one-off and that we're better than that."
For the first time in both his spells – as captain when he was in charge temporarily four years ago and since assuming the role permanently in January 2009 – Strauss does not have only his charges to worry about but his own form. He is without a Test hundred in 22 innings.
"I'd like to think that I can do something about it," he said. "I would like to have scored more runs than I have done this series, clearly, but in the context of the games it has been tough for the opening batsmen and the ball has been swinging around. I would like to get a score both as a batsman and as a captain to lead by example. Just as I said about Alastair Cook last week, as batsmen you are not going to score runs every time you bat otherwise your name would be Don Bradman."
Even Bradman knew failure. Although he scored 50 or more in 42 of his Test innings that still left 38 when he did worse. England's trouble is that Strauss and Cook have both been misfiring, accordingly bringing the middle order into play earlier than is desirable. Kevin Pietersen, at No 4, has now gone 25 Test innings without a hundred.
In the space of a week, there has come to be fallibility throughout England's batting order and Strauss understandably pleaded for a balanced view while not trying to dodge the issue. Put simply, if England do not begin to get their act together they can kiss the Ashes goodbye. Not that this thoughtful captain put it so boldly.
"We haven't batted brilliantly, but if you're scoring 200 and bowling the opposition out for 80 then your batsmen have done a good job on that pitch," he said. "It is hard to score 500 on a pitch that is doing a lot so you've got to put it into context.
"We've talked about it and there are a couple of areas we want to improve and errors we made that we won't make here, but I'm very satisfied with the batting group generally.
"But let's not run away from the fact that we need to bat better than we have done in this series. It would be wrong of us to just put our heads in the sand and say everything is fine."
Pakistan's tour, which has required them to play six Tests in seven weeks, has had its desperate moments. But twice they have turned things round, as if by magic. First, they beat Australia after losing the first Test and then beat England following two defeats.
Their captain, Salman Butt, who took over in the most inauspicious of circumstances after the heavy loss to Australia, has now won two as captain. "Nobody here and nobody in the world expected us to win the games we did and that's the best part," he said. "This team has the ability and, hopefully, they will carry on, but at the moment they're only five matches old."
England, likely to be unchanged for the fourth match, should prevail against a batting order they insist is vulnerable. But then that was the feeling at The Oval and if it does not come to pass this time more questions will be legitimately asked about what lies ahead.
England A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, E J G Morgan, M J Prior (wkt), G P Swann, S C J Broad, J M Anderson, S T Finn.
Pakistan Salman Butt (capt), Yasir Hameed, Imran Farhat, Mohammad Yousuf, Azhar Ali, Umar Akmal, Kamran Akmal (wkt), Mohammad Aamer, Wahab Riaz, Saeed Ajmal, Mohammad Asif.
Pitch report Likely to be a fine batting surface – but foul weather is predicted.
Four with a point to prove
Maybe the captaincy gets to them all in the end. Strauss is without a hundred in 22 innings since Lord's last year – though that more or less won the Ashes. Not been helped by pitch and overhead conditions, remains phlegmatic but needs runs.
To talk of 'King Kev' as a great player seems faintly silly at present. Has been 25 innings without a Test hundred, and being Player of the World Twenty20 barely compensates. Who knows what deep-seated effect losing the captaincy had?
Has it all, doesn't he? Only two matches since his vintage maiden hundred, should come again. But England knew the potential technical risks in Tests. At present may be the one to make way for Ian Bell's return.
Nailed on, like the others, for the Ashes, but he bowled indifferently last week. There is the suspicion that he is not enjoying his cricket at present. Has much to offer, but has to know how to take rough with smooth.
Stephen BrenkleyReuse content