Friday, January 20, 2012

ENGLAND'S 2012 - A YEAR IN ASIA

One-sided matches, almost invariably, are a combination of one side performing exceptionally well and the other side under-performing. The first Test between Pakistan and England at Dubai was no different.

Pakistan were exceptional - keeping tight lines on the first day to create mistakes from the batsmen on an unresponsive wicket, then bat solidly at the top and wag a bit at the bottom to get a more than decent-sized lead, and finally put in another disciplined and at the same time, aggressive bowling effort to bowl England out just 14 runs ahead of their first innings lead.

England were shabby - they got too caught up in trying to be careful against the spin and were done in by Ajmal's guile and wicket-to-wicket lines as a result, then could not find the ammunition to restrict Pakistan despite taking wickets at regular intervals after they had got the first breakthrough, and finally batting poorly again to be shot out just for 160.

The result tells profound tales about both the camps. For Pakistan, it is a huge win, coming against the opponent in whose country they had experienced the lowest point of their recent cricket history - the 2010 Spot Fixing Scandal. Since then, Pakistan has been in a rebuilding state. After showing the promise in the World Cup (and just before than in New Zealand), they have now every reason to be delighted with the progress they have shown under the leadership of Misbah-ul-Haq. This is the first time in about half a decade that there is a sense of stability in Pakistan's cricket, which had been missing ever since they had lost to Ireland in the World Cup 2007, followed by their then coach Bob Woolmer's death and Inzamam-ul-Haq's retirement in the next game against Zimbabwe.

Their win has just made the scenario of Test cricket very exciting at the top. England, because of their Asian struggles, are definitely not in the category of 'Invincibles' yet. Pakistan themselves are on the rise, as is Australia after a decline for some time. India is on a slide, as is Sri Lanka (despite Durban). South Africa is stable near the top, though inconsistent. If Pakistan can unearth another couple of good fast bowler (something they tend to do quite easily and also frankly because I am not very convinced with Aizaz Cheema yet), they might as well threaten for a stint of their own at the top of the rankings in a couple of years.

On the other side of the fence, England have a task ahead of them. They rose to the No. 1 spot in Test rankings not a long time ago. But if they put in such performances in Asia, they will not be holding that rank for a long time, as 2012 sees them play away to Sri Lanka and India as well. Their batting is definitely not as abject as the scores of 192 and 160 would suggest (almost seems like I am talking about India!), but their difficulties against the sub-continental spinners in the sub-continent have been very well-documented. They are not incapable of doing well in the sun-continent - Strauss has a century in each innings in Chennai and a wonderful 150 at Bangalore in the World Cup to look back at, Trott was very consistent in the World Cup, Bell (despite his confusion against Ajmal's doosras) has a fine footwork to counter spin bowling, Pietersen is a class player in a different category of his own, Morgan can counter spin effectively, as can Prior (which is what he showed in the first innings at Dubai).

They have worries in the bowling department too, and it starts right with the structure of their bowling attack. Five bowlers or four bowlers? One spinner or two spinner? What should be the combination when Bresnan is fit and what should it be when he isn't? I don't think two spinners is a good idea for England. Spinners are the bowlers that Asian batsmen relish facing, and so home or away, the best way to attack them is with pace - something the South Africa has done well with a good measure of success in the sub-continent! In the Dubai Test, Swann hardly troubled the Pakistan batsmen. When there is turn, he will surely get a few wickets, but if he is played out comfortably, then 3-4 wickets per Test is not much of a solace. In the sub-continent, the lead spinner of every team needs to be capable of getting 6-7 wickets every Test match!

The other spinner in the English ranks in Monty Panesar, who performed well in the warm-up game prior to the Dubai Test. So bewildering as it might sound to many - here's what I think England should do: draft in Monty Panesar in place of Graeme Swann, their premier spinner. I do feel that sub-continental batsmen prefer facing an off-spinner rather than a left-arm spinner. But the most compelling reason is the abundance of right-handed batsmen in the 3 teams that England will face in Asia in 2012. In their last respective Tests, Pakistan had just 1 left-hander in top-7 (Taufeeq Umar), Sri Lanka had 2 (Lahiru Thirimanne and Kumar Sangakkara), and India had 1 (Gautam Gambhir). With just right-arm fast bowlers in their ranks having to bowl mainly at right-handed batsmen (thereby almost eliminating their chances of bowling around the wicket), there are very little chances of footmarks creating rough patches on the pitch for an off-spinner. But if a left-arm spinner can use those footmarks by going over the wicket. It may be a slightly defensive strategy, but in my opinion, it is the best shot for England!

Greame Swann is a wonderful bowler, but England would do well by adopting a horses-for-courses theory. He can always be drafted back in the side if they are faced with a dustbowl or if Panesar underperforms or if they decide to go with 5 bowlers. But I think going for a left-arm spinner with 3 pacemen is a strategy worth having a shot at!

As for their fast bowlers, they will just have to persevere, get their lengths
right, and be patient. The Asian pitches can be a big test of patience, and winning that test shall help them win a lot of Tests. Broad, I suspect, will be their key bowler... and Strauss would do well to hand him the new ball every time with Anderson (unlike what he did at Dubai). England would have loved to have someone with reverse-swing-capabilities of Simon Jones in their ranks... but even without that, they have good men in their arsenal. Now lets see if they can fire!

4 comments:

Mayank Jhaveri said...

Hey Shri,

Very interesting idea of playing Panesar ahead of Swann. Doubt anyone else would have thought of that, but I agree, trying him out wouldn't be a bad idea at all.

However, I am afraid, it will never happen.

Shridhar Jaju said...

Hi Mayank...

Even I am afraid that it may never happen. But if it does happen and actually work out well (due to an injury or something), it is always good to have it recorded here so that I can say "I told you so!" ;-)

Soulberry said...

Couple of really good points there but especially this "I don't think two spinners is a good idea for England. Spinners are the bowlers that Asian batsmen relish facing, and so home or away, the best way to attack them is with pace - something the South Africa has done well with a good measure of success in the sub-continent!"

I don't see Swann succeeding greatly in Asia. He just doesn't have the qualities to do so...at least at the moment.

Excellent article.

Shridhar Jaju said...

Thank you, SB!

Swann may well do decently in Asia, but England will need a lot more than just a 'decent' performance from their main bowlers to win in Asia.

SAVE OUR TIGER!