Pakistan’s slick victory over muddled England offers sense of upside down

The Guardian Sports 5 months ago

The first Test finished just after noon on Sunday when the sun was at its zenith. There seemed to be shadows on the pitch all the same. Earlier in the morning al-Jazeera released a documentary on corruption in cricket. It included allegations that three English players had committed spot-fixing during the fifth Test against India at Chennai in December 2016 by agreeing to score a certain number of runs during a particular 10-over stretch of the game.

The England response was robust. Their captain, Joe Root, called the allegations “ridiculous”, their coach Trevor Bayliss said they were “outrageous” and the ECB’s chief executive, Tom Harrison, said: “There is nothing we have seen that would make us doubt any of our players in any way whatsoever.”

The film, Cricket’s Match-Fixers, included three strands. The most serious and substantial seems to be the allegations that members of the groundstaff at Galle in Sri Lanka were being paid by bookmakers to doctor pitches before Tests. The International Cricket Council has already launched an investigation into this. The second concerns a proposal for a new franchise tournament in Dubai, which would allegedly be set up with the sole purpose of enabling fixing, but the tournament never actually got off the ground. The third, least substantiated, are the allegations about spot-fixing during the Test in Chennai and another, between India and Australia, in Ranchi in 2017.

There was an echo in all this of the Lord’s Test between England and Pakistan in 2010 when the News of the World broke the story that three Pakistani players – Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Salman Butt – were guilty of spot-fixing. England had dominated that match, just as Pakistan have dominated this one, and the final few overs of it played out on the Sunday morning after the News of the World ran its story.

The key difference between then and now, other than who won and lost, is that the News of the World’s allegations were substantiated and ultimately led to criminal convictions. al-Jazeera’s allegations appear to be based on the word of a single, seemingly untrustworthy, source, and presented in a sensationalised documentary.

But still, it added to the sense that this match was somehow upside down, that the positions of the two teams had been switched around. Pakistan have looked slick and efficient this week, their batsmen patient, their bowlers holding line and length. They have adapted brilliantly to typically English conditions. England are in a muddle, so uncomfortable that Bayliss said Lord’s felt like foreign ground. They have enough mess even without these allegations.

“When we were told about it the thought was ‘rubbish’,” Bayliss said of the allegations. “But there’s nothing we can do about it if they want to put something out there. Let’s concentrate on getting out there and trying to play some good cricket.”

Pakistan have been quite brilliant these last few days, but for that one session on Saturday evening when they seemed to slacken off, thinking, perhaps, the match was already as good as won since England were six down at tea and still 69 runs behind. By Sunday they regrouped and refocused. Their captain, Sarfraz Ahmed, pulled them into a tight little huddle after each and every one of the wickets they took, to push them on to the finish. The joy with which they celebrated each of those last tail-end wickets spoke plenty about how driven and committed they were feeling. In the end they won by nine wickets, at a canter.

Pakistan were under just as much scrutiny as England before this series started, their fans were just as sceptical about the team’s chances. In the two years since they were last here the only teams they have beaten were West Indies, home and away, and Ireland in that one-off Test at Malahide. They had lost every other game they played which is why they have slipped to seventh in the world.

The head coach, Mickey Arthur, had made some brave calls before the tour such as dropping Wahab Riaz because he was not working hard enough in training. “He hasn’t won us a game in two years,” was Arthur’s blunt assessment.

There was a measure of despair, too, that the Pakistani selectors had overlooked Fawad Alam, who has scored more than 10,000 runs at 55 in first-class cricket. None of this went down well with the old Pakistani leg-spinner Abdul Qadir, who tore Arthur to pieces on live TV. “Who is Mickey Arthur? He is someone who was kicked out by South Africa and Australia. Mickey Arthur is the one who ruined Shane Watson’s cricket. Ruined the cricket of Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal. Now he is after Wahab Riaz.” Qadir said the PCB had “handed over the reins to an incompetent white man who has not played Test cricket himself”.

Arthur’s approach has backfired on him before, of course, when he was coaching Australia between 2011 and 2013. Arthur tried to force through sweeping changes to the culture of the team. He has been doing a similar thing in Pakistan, by pushing them to become more professional in their cricket, more committed to their fitness. He organised a four‑week training camp before this tour. You wondered then whether it was all going to blow up again. But judging by the way they have played these past four days, Arthur’s work is paying off.

For once it is Pakistan who have their house in order. England, on the other hand …

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