In January 2012, with England stumbling to defeat in the first Test of their three match series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, a throwaway comment on Twitter by Lawrence Booth set me thinking about the ways in which England’s humbling contrasted with the manner in which series in the sub-continent used to play out, if not in terms of results.
I ended the piece by speculatively suggesting that England were a good enough side to come back, but hinting that I didn’t really expect that they would.
I was right to be dubious. England lost the series 3-0.
On Wednesday morning Lawrence Booth, the editor of Wisden, tweeted (Can you imagine Norman Preston tweeting? No, neither can I.) that watching England slide in Dubai was ‘just like the old times’, at the same time inviting us not to ‘pretend you’re not feeling at least a tiny bit nostalgic’.
This struck a chord with me, and, yes, it did feel a bit nostalgic, because I remember the old times. Although this, really, wasn’t much like the old times.
This wasn’t Qadir in Lahore, turning it square with the worst umpires in history at his shoulder (you can say what you like about Billy B, but Shakeel Khan he ain’t), or Kumble and his henchmen mopping up the prawn curry refugees at Chepauk (That was the old times. Sachin made a hundred.). This, somehow, didn’t seem to quite have the essence of English humblings in Asia down pat. The stadium looked modern, antiseptic and largely deserted, and, while the Gaddafi Stadium in 1987 was equally empty, the old concrete terraces lent it an air of starkness and brutalism which ‘Dubai Sports City’ will never match. The air was clear and the ambience calm, with the odd desultory Barmy Army chant replacing the call of the muezzins. The smog and searing heat of old India were enviably absent with some English travellers even complaining that it was too cool in the shade.
Other things were different too. Pakistan looked a smooth, competent, resurgent unit, desperate to atone for past slights and failings. DRS mopped up any loiterers with as much finality as Shakeel and Shakoor used to, but marginally more accuracy. Saeed Ajmal looked the bowler he is – good, not great – with the modern off-spinner’s facility to make the ball go in more than one direction, although often the trickery seemed to be confined to the wandering minds of England’s ring-rusty batsmen.
But this is hair-splitting. The wider truth is that the game in Asia has always been different from that played in England, or in Australia, or in New Zealand, and it remains so. Pitches are slower, spinners come on earlier and bowl better, with more variation and confidence, than they will ever do again in the world’s temperate zones. English teams, even one as successful as this, will always struggle to adapt, especially if they haven’t quite had the practice they need and the soft, warm feeling of Christmases and weddings and being ‘World No.1’ hasn’t quite faded. A few hours in the middle against Ajmal and Rehman ought to sort that, but most didn’t make it that far, bamboozled either by Ajmal’s variations, Gul’s persistence or, in Pietersen’s case, their own brainlessness.
This is an England team with many qualities. They could come back from this.
In the old days, though, they never did.
Different Shades of Green, 20th January 2012