On a balmy Abu Dhabi evening England politely yet professionally defeated their hosts in a friendly match so gentle it bore little relation to the three imminent T20 matches against Pakistan. At least let us hope that is the case.
The UAE, not the same force as when they qualified for the last World Cup, provided the practice as best they could. In an almost deserted stadium, expensively lit by thousands of bulbs at the top of four massive pylons, England, even though decelerating rapidly in the second half of their innings, hit 174 in their 20 overs and cantered to a win by 79 runs. Earlier in their warm-up game Pakistan had beaten Hong Kong by 64 runs in daylight in Dubai, a far more environmentally-friendly encounter.
This was handy preparation for the three imminent matches, but no more than that. Sam Billings, a man inclined to take the positives, and whose last match was over two months ago, spoke for many of his team-mates when he said: “It was good to have a run-out and dust off the cobwebs. It’s an important week for the team. The T20 World Cup is coming up [in March] and it does not get any bigger than that.”
Billings kept wicket more than adequately in Jos Buttler’s absence but could not quite match his batting. “The bloke’s a freak”, he said affectionately when asked about Buttler’s 64-ball century in the final ODI.
An England team has seldom played in front of so few people – certainly not in their own country – and that is just about official. The ECB has released figures that more people attended cricket matches in England in 2015 (2,328,764 of them apparently) than in any year since it was founded in 1997.
England gave as many of their bystanders an outing as possible but none could do much with the bat outside the confines of a net. The recent stalwarts scored most of the runs. Jason Roy demonstrated he is in the pink, hitting 59 from 29 balls, and Alex Hales cracked a few boundaries but the rest struggled to have an impact on a surface that became increasingly tricky to bat on.
James Vince, flown out specifically for the T20 leg of the tour, was run out for two; Billings mustered a dirty dozen and for a while Chris Jordan swished only at thin air in the closing overs as the UAE contained England to a respectable total.
But the hosts never threatened to get close to that target. England’s pace bowlers gathered wickets at will, though Liam Plunkett, who has traipsed around the country for the last seven weeks ferrying drinks and bowling in the nets, was the most expensive. So he may well have to sit out yet again when the T20 team to play Pakistan on Thursday is selected.
Stephen Parry, the left-arm spinner from Lancashire who specialises in white-ball cricket even for his county, took a wicket, albeit an ugly one – a big full toss was hoicked to deep midwicket. Somehow Moeen Ali finished with four for 11.
It was a surreal affair, which attracted very little attention in these parts and which was of limited value. At the end of it all the teams shook hands warmly but those in the stadium, whether players, press or indeed the odd spectator, must have wondered for a second or two what they were doing there. It should be a little more animated come Thursday.
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