Cricket Expert & Columnist
Still falling short
Pakistan must learn to deal with England's short-ball tactics ahead of the NatWest Series, says Mike Atherton.
Last Updated: 09/09/10 2:08pm
Fragile, vulnerable and uncertain how to win.
Such was England's lot in 2006 after defeats to Pakistan at Lord's and the Rose Bowl left them staring at a 2-0 one-day deficit.
They rallied at Trent Bridge, however, to end a barren run of 11 limited-overs games without a victory and then tied the series 2-2 with a three-wicket win at Edgbaston.
How rousing it would be to see an equally-competitive contest played out over the next 12 days or so as England and Pakistan line up for five one-day internationals.
Sadly, as much as I'd love to be proved wrong, the chances of that appear slim. Instead, a strange atmosphere is in the air ahead of the first match at Durham on Friday.
Pakistan look like a team totally bereft of spirit - one that is embarrassed by its recent performances and struggling to focus on the task in hand given the events of recent weeks.
But there's also a feeling amongst fans that we've had too much cricket this year, precious little of which has been brilliant.
Each of these aspects came together in Tuesday's grim Twenty20 non-contest at Cardiff in front of barely 5,000 people.
I hope Pakistan can turn their form around in the weeks ahead, much as England kicked on in 2006, but I fear the timeframe is too short, the confidence too lacking.
The tourists can take heart in the fact that England are a good 50-over side but not the world-beaters they are at present in Twenty20 cricket.
They have more chance of competing in the longer format, where there will be more time for quality players like Mohammad Yousuf to settle in and contribute match-winning innings.
By all accounts Shoaib Akhtar is bowling quickly and challenging batsmen - a genuine plus in the absence Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif - and with 35 years on the clock he'll give everything for one last hurrah in England.
Plus, Pakistan have Shahid Afridi's mercurial talent to fall back on and they should use that wisely depending on the conditions they encounter.
The ball is likely to zip around under lights in the three day-night games and, if I was in charge of Pakistan, I'd be tempted to keep Afridi in the middle-order so he can cause mayhem later on in the innings.
But there are also two day games in this series and if, all of a sudden, Pakistan find themselves on a flat pitch I'd promote Afridi up the order. Flexibility has to be the key.
Whatever the line-up, Pakistan won't put big runs on the board unless their batsmen improve their technique against the shorter ball.
For a long time in one-day cricket bowlers put the bouncer away (there was even a period when they weren't allowed to bowl them) and slower balls and yorkers were perceived to be a greater containing threat.
But around a year ago we noticed that Stuart Broad had started to bowl a lot of cross-seam deliveries in one-day cricket.
It was a tactic that took one or two by surprise but one that is now emulated by many - a sure sign of its effectiveness and evidence that, in Twenty20 cricket at least, other teams are trying to catch England up.
Pakistan have been caught off guard themselves, not surprising perhaps given their tradition of playing on pretty slow, baked wickets at home where reverse swing rather than swing is the key weapon.
They are not alone though. I have yet to see a batsman who can cope consistently with the slower-ball bouncer. Most seem to be through the shot early and therefore don't generate enough power in their shots.
The varied pace of the cross-seam, short-pitched delivery is equally tough to deal with. Sometimes the seam will grip on the pitch, on other occasions the ball will hurry off the pitch. Good luck scoring off that delivery under lights on a dewy pitch!
Given the challenges that lie in wait this winter, I suspect England head coach Andy Flower would like his team to be put under pressure in the series ahead.
I'm sure he felt the Test series was a good wake-up call for his batsmen, a reminder that they are not quite as good as they or others think they are, particularly against the moving ball.
It's difficult to see what England will gain from a facile victory over Pakistan other than confidence and momentum, which in itself is no bad thing ahead of the Ashes.
No-one, perhaps, is in more need of runs than Paul Collingwood. England's Twenty20 skipper says he is happy to hand back the captaincy to Andrew Strauss, although my own view is that if he was offered the chance to lead the 50-over game he'd jump at it.
It's by no means certain yet who will lead the side in the World Cup, although Strauss has to be the favourite as things stand.
Collingwood, of course, has seen it all before. Eighteen months ago he couldn't buy a run and was virtually on the way out of the side, so he knows things can change very quickly in cricket.
There's always an incentive to perform and produce and by doing so make yourself an invaluable part of the side.
With the Ashes on the horizon, I'm sure that will be in the back of every England player's mind in the coming weeks including Michael Yardy, who back on debut in 2006 contributed 3-24 at Trent Bridge against Pakistan to help turn England's fortunes around.