Cricket Expert & Columnist
Back in the balance
Mike Atherton says England cannot afford to end the Test summer with another batting collapse.
Last Updated: 25/08/10 12:12pm
Pakistan's victory over England at the Oval was one of the great team performances of recent years.
Ridiculed - and rightly so - for their batting and catching after the opening two Tests of the series, it was a significant achievement for this group of largely inexperienced players to turn things around so quickly.
Perhaps it was not as surprising, though, as some have made out. The truth is that Pakistan have created problems for England throughout this series and had they taken their catches at Trent Bridge and Edgbaston the home side would have found things far more difficult.
I've been fascinated by this series, it's been a good one to watch and with the final Test coming up at Lord's, Australia and the Ashes can wait as far as I'm concerned.
The pitch is going to be one of the most under-prepared at Lord's in recent years; Mick Hunt the groundsman said earlier this week that it hasn't seen the sun for 12 days so expect the toss to play a significant part.
It's been clear from the start that bowling is not the issue for Pakistan and England will no doubt have taken note that they bowled Australia out for 253 in their first innings at Lord's earlier this summer.
The attack possesses plenty of variation and to that end I'm not certain it matters a great deal if Umar Gul is fit or not to play this week, although Pakistan would clearly welcome his experience in the side.
One or two of England's batsmen clearly struggled against the left-arm angle created by Gul's replacement at Edgbaston, Wahab Riaz, who proved himself a pretty decent back-up bowler to Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif.
But I still fear for Pakistan's batting line-up, even though Mohammad Yousuf's return has stiffened that middle order, because it is hard to see England getting rolled over twice at Lord's as they did second time round at the Oval.
Let's not forget that despite England's dramatic collapse, Pakistan only just scraped to victory in the third Test. They were really twitchy in that post-lunch session on the fourth day and struggled past the 148-mark.
It wasn't surprising to see Yousuf scratching around early on in his comeback for Pakistan - he looked like a batsman playing from memory and understandably so given his previous Test outing was in January.
But when he got to 20 or 30 things started to flow and he looked as though he had remembered the mechanics of his game.
He still has got a lovely touch - that hasn't gone missing at all. Some of the late dabs and late cuts through backward of point were played with such finesse that it was a surprise when he became Graeme Swann's 100th Test victim.
Yousuf will feel all-the-better for his time spent in the middle and England will again have a job dismissing him at Lord's although not for the first time Jimmy Anderson removed him with a very full swinging delivery and that could be the way to go.
England will be particularly disappointed with the manner of their batting collapse last week as the pitch was good and the ball wasn't moving around a great deal.
It will be a concern for Andy Flower because we've now seen his side stutter twice at Trent Bridge, once at Edgbaston and they slumped twice at the Oval.
Batsmen build up a sense of confidence over time and collapses are like viruses that spread quickly. If you have the feeling that if one wicket goes then a cluster might, you are always batting with a certain nervous tension.
That installs a note of caution in the side whereas this England team are at their best when the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Eoin Morgan are trying to play fluently and aggressively. You never want either of them in particular to feel like they can't get out in case there is a collapse.
While it was encouraging to see Alastair Cook find some form at the Oval, it worries me that he had to be taken right to the wire to produce his best; you shouldn't have to be on the edge of being dropped before you perform.
That said, it was good to see the way he played; his footwork was much improved and in the second innings he got a stride into the ball in a way that he just hadn't been able to before. It spoke volumes for his character and toughness.
Matt Prior, though, is in many ways England's in-form player for me; he'd probably get in the top six on merit at the moment because he's as likely to get as many as anybody else.
It's a reflection on how well he is doing and a reflection on some of the others as well too. His driving is excellent, he's hitting through midwicket and mid-on more often, and he looks to have plenty of runs in him.
Given Pakistan's recent recovery, England might just need them.