Tuesday, July 18, 2006

First Test: Match drawn (haven't I used this title before?)



It could have been so much worse. At a time when Pakistan have edged England into third place in the official ICC world rankings, you would expect a series between the two to be closely fought. Had both sides been at full strength, you would say it was too close to call. However, both sides are nursing injuries which more or less cancel out any advantage to the other. I myself still think the series will end in a draw.

In retrospect, it's hard to imagine either side coming out of this game with a victory. Both were using depleted bowling attacks against a strong batting line-up on a flat pitch which deteriorated only a little. England possibly had marginally better bowling, Pakistan marginally better batting, but there was no prospect of a result - expect perhaps Pakistan's fielders might have done well not to smear butter on their fingers before the first day's play.

England emerged with many positives that should eclipse the embarrassing failure to beat Sri Lanka on the same ground in May. Without Flintoff, they still managed to save a game that could have run away from them. Four of their batsmen scored centuries: Collingwood marked his true arrival as a world-class Test batsman, having appeared little more than an also-ran for several years; Strauss silenced his critics with his ninth century in only 28 matches, reminding everyone of the great potential he showed two years ago when he entered the squad with a blistering run of high scores; Bell gave the selectors a pleasant headache by proving his mettle in the No. 6 position, keeping out the Pakistani attack even more effectively than he did when England had their disastrous tour over there before Christmas; and Alistair Cook rode his luck to three figures, keeping his Test average over fifty, and ensuring that he won't be far away from selection when the Ashes are next contested in November. Add to this some pretty nifty spin bowling from Monty Panesar in the second innings, in which he was stopped from adding more wickets to his name only by the inexplicable myopia of should-have-retired-years-ago umpire Bucknor, and there are many reasons to feel that English cricket is looking in reasonably strong shape, despite the injuries that have plagued the team so strongly that Duncan Fletcher must be feeling Pharoah had it easy.

Yet one feels Pakistan have a trump card which is unmatchable - their middle order. Mohammad Yousuf scored a scorching double century in the first innings, and 250 runs in the match in total, dismissing England's almost world-class attack with contempt. And Inzamam proved once again to be unmovable, unbeatable, more rock-like than his Indian counterpart Dravid. You feel England will one day get him out for less than fifty. But you don't feel that day will be any time soon.

So, onto Old Trafford - Flintoff will be fit again, and must surely play on his home ground. So, what do you do about selection? Someone has to make room for him. There are players who pick themselves: Trescothick, Strauss, Pietersen, Fred himself, Panesar, Harmison, Hoggard, Collingwood after that display. That leaves three places. One of them has to keep wicket, so let's assume Jones keeps his place despite his abysmal form with the bat (but look how his keeping has improved to compensate!). That leaves two places for three players: Cook, Bell and Plunkett. Which one gets the chop?

Only one of the three put in a poor (or less than adequate) performance in this last match, and that's Plunkett. Indeed, although his bowling has shown great promise, and although his future looks bright indeed, he has under-performed in his Test career so far (especially given that he was brought into the side partly because he was believed to be a bit of a whizz with the bat). However, if Plunkett is dropped, that means the bowling will rely entirely on Harmison, Hoggard, Flintoff (just back from an injury possibly aggravated by too much bowling) and Panesar. Is a four-man attack enough to dislodge the concrete walls in the middle of the Pakistan order, especially given that they will soon be joined by their equally solid colleague, Younis Khan?

If not, Plunkett must play, and England must face the embarrassing situation of having to drop a player who has just made a century. Of the two, Cook's century looked the less smooth and confident. He was lucky not to have been dismissed several times in the innings, partly through Pakistani error and partly through the effect of the vision-reducing spectacles of Blind Lemon Bucknor. In the second innings he looked out of his depth, and was dismissed cheaply, whereas Bell provided excellent support to his captain and would probably have batted to the end of the day, had not Strauss completely lost his judgement and called a suicide run. On the other hand, Cook's record in Test cricket is compelling and he will frighten the Australians in November, having destroyed their attack at Chelmsford last year. Would it not be a good idea to give him a run in the side in advance of the approaching tour?

If there's a strong case for retaining Cook, there's also a strong case for retaining Bell. His century was fluid and confident, and showed the same kind of patience and judgement he displayed against the same opposition in the winter. He may look like a paralysed rabbit against an Australian attack, but against Pakistani spin he looks assured. One could argue, of course, that Cook came in when England were in a difficult situation, having lost Trescothick early, whereas Bell came in when there were already plenty of runs on the board. One can also argue that keeping Bell and dropping Cook would force Bell to come in at No. 3, a position in which he is naturally less comfortable. (However, he did score well against Pakistan in November, batting in that very position.)

I'm glad I'm not the person to make the call. Given that the Old Trafford surface has become pacier lately, I fancy our bowlers could do some damage, so we need the strongest attack available, especially if Pakistan win the toss - they will want to bat first and post a big total, knocking us out of the game, so we will need to put as many holes in their line-up as we can. That means retaining Plunkett. Since Bell has shown more promise against the Pakistan bowlers than Cook (although we only have the one match with which to judge Cook, so it's not really fair), I'd be tempted to keep him - especially since it was at Old Trafford that he had his only success in last year's Ashes. But this is a very close call indeed, and the slightest thing could make my assessment invalid.

Of course, this being England, someone will probably get injured in the meantime, rendering the whole discussion academic.


Blogger Larry Teabag said...

Plunkett's got to play if only because of Fred's injury. I think I'd go for Cook over Bell, I dunno Bell's never totally convinced me - even when he's getting runs he somehow fails to inspire confidence, but I'm happy to accept this is probably overly harsh. I guess on the other hand he does have something of the Thorpe about him

Incidentally it's good to see someone seriously blogging the cricket. Keep it up!

7:10 pm  
Blogger Oscar Wildebeest said...

Well, it pretty much looks as if it's going to be an unchanged side for the second Test. Flintoff's injury may well have knocked the stuffing out of the England team, but at least it's kicked all those awkward selectorial dilemmas into touch (mixing sporting metaphors, sorry).

As for Bell, I think a lot of the reason he looks unconvincing is that he's short, ginger, a bit pale-looking and not a striding colossus like Fred. This gives the impression that he's a good deal more frightened than he actually is. Probably.

5:03 pm  

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