Late Defiance Hiding England’s Middle-Order Problems

Late Defiance Hiding England’s Middle-Order Problems

Surely not even the most optimistic fan thought that it would have come that close. When England slumped to 193-7 – still around 55 overs to bat out – it would have been easy to think that Alastair Cook’s men were down and out, yet Adil Rashid, Stuart Broad and Mark Wood had other ideas. It was truly an astonishing rearguard that nearly pulled England out of the mire.

Cardiff, Centurion, Cape Town, Auckland: England have produced their fair share of great escapes over recent times. This, however, would have eclipsed them all. On a turning pitch, with a huge casting shadow reducing visibility of the ball, virtually every Pakistan fielder round the bat, and facing hostility and turn from either end, England’s lower order deserve immense credit for the resolve shown. They stood up to everything Pakistan threw at them and came an agonising 6.3 overs from safety.

Yet as Adil Rashid slapped Yasir Shah to cover – departing for a superb 61 from 172 balls – England had every right to feel distraught. This would have been the greatest of great escapes.

While some may look at Rashid’s bizarre shot selection with only 39 balls remaining as England’s dagger to the heart, it is surely more pertinent to look at the collapses of the middle-order on day three and five as the real killer blows to their chances of winning in the UAE.

Losing 7-36 – shortly after the bowlers performed admirably in reducing Pakistan to 378 after their ominous overnight position – was simply too costly for a team desperate to win their first game in these conditions. Much like the missed chances on the first day of the first Test in Abu Dhabi, which cost them valuable time and over 400 runs, that half-hour may be the session when England’s chance really went away. “In these conditions you can’t afford those two or three hours,” said Alastair Cook.

From then on, England were chasing the game. It is perhaps symptomatic of their series so far – too many times chasing and not enough leading. Conceding even a slender lead to this Pakistan batting line-up would have opposing teams worried, let alone being 136 runs in arrears on first innings.

So, as Younis Khan, Misbah ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq piled on the misery in the second dig, England’s gameplan changed. From battling the light to win the game in Abu Dhabi, to doing the same in Dubai, England had to bat with immense concentration and application. After losing Moeen and Cook early, the way in which Ian Bell and the excellent Joe Root batted showed that if England were to go down they would at lest go down fighting.

But again, when England needed their middle order to stand firm, the frailties showed up once more. Another collapse, albeit a smaller one, of 4-37 gave the away side little chance of saving the game, despite the resolve shown later by the lower-order. It was another faulty display that cost England dearly.

For all England’s hard work over the previous Test and limiting Pakistan to under 400 in the fourth innings of this game, these two collapses have surely undone it. Now, all that England can play for is to square the series in Sharjah, a very good achievement if they can do it, but they will have to wait a few more years to win a series at a place that has now become Pakistan’s adopted fortress.

So what can be done to make sure that the aim of winning in Sharjah becomes a reality? Well, something surely has to be done about the form of the struggling Jos Buttler. “Buttler is seriously under the cosh,” said Sir Ian Botham, who believes the keeper’s workload is starting to take a toll on him. “Maybe he needs a little break. Personally I would give Bairstow the gloves.”

Former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott also agrees that the 25-year-0ld should take a time-out. “The selectors have to change Buttler.” Boycott told the BBC’s Test Match Special. “He looks a shadow of the guy that plays lots of shots in one-day cricket.”

Perhaps that is the issue: Buttler seems to be caught in two minds. Should he attack? Should he grind it out? It has been a constant theme throughout this year for the Lancashire player, as the fearless approach has gradually disappeared after lighting up the Test arena during his first three Tests against India last summer. Many others, like Botham and Boycott, are tipping Bairstow to take over wicketkeeping duties for the final Test and maybe a rest is what Buttler needs ahead of a crucial series against South Africa. After all, this is a guy with immense talent who will surely be a big part of his country’s future, in all forms of cricket.

And then there is Bairstow and Ben Stokes, whose form is also a concern. They have just 91 and 76 runs respectively in this series so far and have struggled against the spin of Babar and Yasir. Not only that, but both of their strike rates are below 50 – an uncharacteristic stat for such free-scoring players who look to get on with the game. They seem to have been bogged down by the Pakistan spin pairing, as well as the fiery Wahab Riaz, a sight that will not comfort England fans anytime soon.

James Taylor has already been tipped to come in for Buttler in Sharjah as the selectors look to add stability to the middle order, with Bairtsow and Stokes both dropping a place to accommodate the Nottinghamshire man. England will hope that’s exactly what Taylor will bring after impressing in both the ODI side and in the warm-up matches prior to this series.

“The time to play people is when they’re playing well and his form is excellent, he got a lovely hundred against Australia in the one-dayer at Old Trafford,” said Boycott, on Taylor. “A good coach would have said ‘young man you’re going to play all three Test matches, don’t worry about just one innings, we’ll give you a fair go and see how you do.'”

After all the optimism that Abu Dhabi brought, Dubai sent England crashing back down to Earth. The sentimental blow of only having a draw to play for in Sharjah should not detract from the task in hand, however. No more middle-order slides. It’s time England lead the game from the outset and prove that all their hard work so far will not go undone.