Beating the batsmen's blues
Your bat feels like a pipe-cleaner, the ball looks as small as a marble and scoring runs is like finding happy hour in a desert.
Masters of their craft in recent times, England’s batsmen resembled hapless amateurs in the first Test against Pakistan in Dubai.
Bamboozled by the variations of off-spinner Saeed Ajmal, the top six made just 143 runs between them in two innings as England were skittled for 192 and 160 in a chastening 10-wicket defeat.
With the second Test in Abu Dhabi starting on Wednesday, England have precious little time to put things right and justify their position as the world’s top-ranked side.
Ian Bell survived just 16 balls over two innings in the opening Test. Photo: AP
So how do you recover from such a humbling experience and produce the goods when your touch has deserted you?
“You’ve got to remind yourself that you are a good player,” says former captain Alec Stewart, who played a record 133 Tests for England between 1990 and 2003.
“I used to put on a video of a match in which I played well and remind myself of what I could do.
“One bad game, and one bad innings, doesn’t turn you into a shocking player. The majority of that top six have a very good 12 months behind them.
“They just need to stay relaxed. If you are going through a poor run of form it is natural to become tense and on edge. Sometimes it just takes one ball that you put away and then you are off and running again.”
Perhaps the most alarming aspects of England’s batting display in Dubai were the abject showings from Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen.
The prolific trio, who scored nine centuries and five double-hundreds between them in England’s previous 12 Tests, failed to reach double figures in either innings.
Cook scrambled eight runs from 61 balls, Bell twice failed to read Ajmal’s doosra, while Pietersen was lured into a false shot by Ajmal in the first innings and mindlessly pulled to deep square-leg in the second.
According to Mike Gatting, who averaged 50.7 over the 13 Tests he played in India, the key to success in alien conditions is to treat the pitch, and the opposition, with respect.
“The first two or three overs are the most important,” he says. “You have to be confident that you can get through those first 18 balls.
“Whatever method you wish to use, whether it is using your feet or playing off the back foot, you have to do it in a way that is comfortable to you. And when you get in, you need to make sure you stay in.
“You need to have a game plan. A good solid forward defensive can be a positive statement of your intent to occupy the crease.”
With mastering Ajmal potentially the key to the series, England’s batsmen have been spending plenty of time under the spell of “Merlyn”, a bowling machine that purports to be able to replicate any spinner’s delivery.
But, in Stewart’s opinion, there is a limit to Merlyn’s effectiveness when a batman is trying to unravel the mysteries of Ajmal.
“Merlyn is better than nothing because at least they are practising, but the downside is that you are not actually seeing the bowler’s hand,” he says.
“Ajmal is tricky because he bowls both his doosra and his off-spinner with a scrambled seam.
“With Graeme Swann’s regulation off-spinner you can see that the angle of the seam stays the same all the way down the pitch, so you also have time to pick it as it is coming towards you.
“If it’s a scrambled seam for both the doosra and the off-spinner, it makes it harder because you are having to pick it out of the hand.
“In my day, we would work as a team, looking at how to combat someone like Anil Kumble. Does he do anything differently? Does he have his fingers in a slightly different place when he spins the ball?
“With all the technology on hand nowadays I’d like to think they are analysing everything they can and adjusting their techniques accordingly.”
Saeed Ajmal's first-innings figures of 7-55 included five lbws. Photo: Getty Images
Gatting believes England’s best approach to Ajmal is to play the ball late and endeavour to disrupt his rhythm. He points to the example of left-hander Graham Thorpe, who averaged 61 in England’s back-to-back series wins in Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the winter of 2000-01.
“If you’ve got a good spinner you generally try to knock him off his length,” Gatting says. “Thorpy used to play [Muttiah] Muralitharan off the back foot and played him magnificently well. He also played Shane Warne very well in his own manner.
“Ajmal bowled very well but he wasn’t under pressure. If the guys can get in, it will be interesting to see how Ajmal gets on.
“You don’t have to whack the ball out of the ground but if you play in a positive and organised manner, you should score plenty of runs on these pitches.”
Gatting is backing England to continue their habit of following up their last four Test defeats with a resounding victory.
After their previous loss in Perth in December 2010, England reacted by bowling out Australia for 98 on the first day of the Melbourne Test and went on to win the Ashes series 3-1.
“Dubai wasn’t very pleasant viewing but let’s not go overboard about it,” he says. “England have had a long break, whereas Pakistan have played a lot of cricket, have a team spirit about them and a guy who bowls a bit differently.
“Hopefully England will have got that defeat out of their system and do what they normally do when they lose a Test match and win the next one.”