It was Pakistan who opted for a lap of honour at The Oval at the conclusion of one of the better series of recent times.
They were the jubilant side on a balmy Sunday afternoon, wearing broad grins as they celebrated squaring the series. Having been defeated so soundly at Old Trafford and Edgbaston, there was almost universal expectation that England would prevail. Perhaps Pakistan were underestimated.
The stereotyping of their team did not quite fit this time. Under the quietly inspirational Misbah-ul-Haq, who weighs every word before addressing a wider audience, they were diplomatic, tenacious and superbly disciplined. There were a few glimpses of reverse swing and aggressive wrist spin throughout the series, but the decisive factor at the Oval was their pragmatism. They scented an opportunity and their batsmen, led by the ageless Younis Khan, made sure it was taken.
On the evidence of this series England would crave a Younis in their middle order and they would also welcome batsmen of the calibre of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq at the top.
Likewise none of us would have predicted that Sohail Khan would be Pakistan’s most prolific paceman. There he stood to attention at the end of his mark, back straight and possibly creaking, and somehow he took more wickets in the series – in two matches – than any of the other Pakistan fast bowlers.
Mohammad Amir had a remarkably anonymous time after all the pre-series hype. His figures did not flatter him and he will be a force for Pakistan for the rest of the decade. It may be no bad thing for him to return to Test cricket in such an understated way. The cricket was so absorbing that any debate about his recall and any boorish shouts of “no-ball” soon disappeared. Oddly Amir’s greatest attribute was his discipline and patience rather than explosive pace or swing.
Meanwhile Yasir Shah demonstrated the worth of a quality wrist-spinner. There may be barren spells – indeed there were plenty of those in Manchester and Birmingham – but there was also the capacity to win matches. He ambushed England at Lord’s, while at The Oval the batsmen knew the threat in front of them but still they succumbed.
Now England will contemplate their winter with a healthy dose of realism, which might have been absent if they had somehow been catapulted to No1 in the rankings. The match at The Oval was a reminder of how they can struggle on dry, true pitches – especially when there is little reverse swing available. In such conditions high pace and high-quality spin are an asset and England are lacking in both departments.
At the end of a long summer Stuart Broad was chugging in nobly at The Oval but with little venom while Jimmy Anderson needs a smidgeon of swing to galvanise him. The zip had to come from Chris Woakes, who had a wondrous return to Test cricket, and, all too sporadically, from Steven Finn. Durham’s Mark Wood is back in action – in fact he has been in the field for quite a long time at Lord’s over the past two days. His body will not permit him to play seven Tests this winter, but he might be able to rush in for three or four.
In this series the introduction of Moeen Ali to bowl his off-breaks has been the equivalent of offering a red rag to a bull. Getting hit for six is an occupational hazard – especially in this century – but it does happen remarkably frequently to perfectly respectable deliveries from Moeen. One suggestion when he senses the batsmen are contemplating an assault is to bowl a little straighter.
This is a more conservative line, one pursued by an Emburey rather than a Swann. It means aiming to hit middle and leg rather than off-stump. It might also mean that the batsmen do not have so much room to swing their arms and if they sweep – as Younis frequently did – and they miss – which Younis did not – they should be lbw.
Moeen needs reinforcements. The logical assumption is that Adil Rashid will tour – after all, he has been in the last two Test squads – and so will another spinner, presumably a left-armer, with Surrey’s Zafar Ansari, selected last winter before acquiring a nasty thumb injury, the favourite. But if that is the case do not expect too much from him. Here is another all-rounder, which is always handy, but he is still learning his trade as a spinner.
With such a callow spin attack Alastair Cook will have to be at his most innovative as a captain in India this winter. Last time in 2012 he could toss the ball to Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar with confidence. In 2016 he will need more options. Hence there is a good case for playing four quicks (including Ben Stokes and Woakes) and two spinners in his Test team. With so many all-rounders this is easily possible, especially since the current specialist batsmen – with the exception of Joe Root and Cook himself – have been unable to produce the goods this summer.
Over the next fortnight James Whitaker, the national selector will be a busy man. The assumption is his cohorts, Angus Fraser and Mick Newell, will be preoccupied by the progress of their sides which are either battling to win the Championship (in the case of Middlesex and Fraser) or to stay in the top division (Nottinghamshire and Newell). Whitaker must surely bring to the selection table the names of two or three batsmen, who might lessen the burden on Cook and Root, a far from straightforward task.
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