This sports journalism piece was first published on Huffington Post (UK) here.
The second Test between England and Pakistan beginning tomorrow (July 22) at Old Trafford has acquired a strange tension, which is vastly more intense and different from the buzz surrounding the crowd reaction to Mohammed Amir’s return to the stage where he had let the cricketing world down.
The ill feeling, amazingly, has nothing to do with what happened on the pitch for a fluctuating four days, at the end of which Pakistan won by 75 tension runs. What got England’s goat was the visitors’ showmanship after the fall of the last English wicket, in front of thousands of English supporters. The reaction to the act from the host gallery was swift – especially from pacer Tim Bresnan and captain Alastair Cook, who said it would work as a motivation for his team.
But giving the post-match box-office fireworks a miss, one of the reasons why Alastair Cook & Co. lost was because they never believed they were going to lose the test – neither at the beginning of the match nor when they were given a target of 283 to chase in the fourth innings.
And there was a good reason for the confidence. They had just routed Sri Lanka in an easy series win. Add to it their impressive home record in tests this decade.
But they lost – to their own “naive batting”, as Cook put it, and Yasir Shah, in that order. Unless they make a few changes, the result could be repeated.
Play Yasir Positively; Play Seamers Aggressively
There is a difference between ‘going after’ a spinner and playing a spinner with the ‘best foot’. So, the case of Moeen Ali’s horrendous dart at Yasir and Gary Ballance jumping on the sides and getting bowled behind the legs are both prime examples of how not to play a spinner. Jonny Bairstow going to the back foot and getting bowled to a flipper by Yasir is also a form of going after the bowler – because the underlying assumption is that the batsman has got the bowler on the mat and that he can cut the bowler any time.
And yet, the idea is not the opposite – to try to block Yasir away. That was the other extreme that was tried by the English batsmen during the course of the match. Unfortunately for them, they found out that it can’t work for a period spread over 40 overs in an innings.
The best way to play a spinner, as any batting coach would tell you, is to rotate the strike. Yes, with many men around the bat, it isn’t always the easiest of things to do. But that’s when footwork comes into play – something that you ought to possess in a decent amount if you are deemed good enough by your country to face wrist or finger spinners from the Indian subcontinent. A decent footwork allows a batsman to move about the crease while, importantly, covering the stumps in such a way that LBW is taken out of the equation.
Pace bowlers need rhythm to succeed; spinners need that, and a lot of space.
Yasir aside, there is no need to give undue respect to the seam bowlers. If England has to succeed, the batsmen would have to tackle Pakistani pacers aggressively. It should not be impossible for a team that is more used to the mix of pace and swing than most Test-playing nations.
In other words, play Yasir positively and the Pakistani seamers even more so.
Unlock the Resources
James Anderson, who was the world’s number one Test bowler before Yasir Shah overtook him with his exploits at Lords, and Ben Stokes are expected to walk straight into the side after their time out due to injury – replacing Jacob Ball and Steven Finn respectively.
But England needs to bring Adil Rashid in for Moeen Ali – and not just for the ‘that’ shot by the latter in the second innings. Pakistan is filled with right-handers and therefore leggie Rashid offers a much better option than Moeen. Also, Rashid has the confidence of rattling the Pakistani batting line-up once, barely six months ago in Dubai. And he can bat a bit too.
On the other hand, with the pitch at Old Trafford traditionally being receptive to spin bowling, there is a case for playing both of them – at the expense of, perhaps, James Vince. In all honesty, it is a toss-up between Vince and Gary Ballance. But left-handed Ballance should be a better counter to the leg spin of Yasir. Also, he has a better record of the two.
But the most vital part of managing the above resources is the need to unlock – or unclutter – the resources.
Alex Hales, in all fairness, is not going to play for four sessions of a test match in this series. Give him the freedom to express himself without self-doubts about his role as an opener.
The same for Joe Root. He got so bogged down under the pressure of expectations after the departure of Cook in the second innings that it ultimately led to his dismissal. It’s time to remind him that he alone is not expected to win it for England.
On top of that, England will have to fight fire with fire when it comes to expressing it on the field. Get into the Ashes mindset and give it back to the opponent. Most English players would be able to do more push-ups than their Pakistani counterparts. Let it show in the middle.