Despite beating Australia to win the Ashes last summer, something that is said to be the ultimate achievement in the game for an English cricketer and the yardstick by which English sides are judged, many claim that a greater challenge has just arrived for Alistair Cook’s side. Beating Pakistan over a three-match series in the United Arab Emirates arguably offers a more testing prospect than the dismantling of the old Southern Hemisphere enemy at home.
Why? Simply put, England this time face a dual-challenge – their opponents and the environment they will be playing in. This is to be a superior barometer of the quality of this England team – they have done it at home in familiar conditions but can they now did it on the slow, spinning wickets that English sides have traditionally struggled on?
Adaptation is one of the hardest parts of sport – be it for a change in pitch, atmosphere, weather or quality of opposition. It will regularly confront sportsmen and women throughout their careers; an unavoidable obstacle that has to be passed. It is why, despite beating the second best team in the world not so long ago, England are not outright favourites for this clash against the side directly below them in the Test match rankings. It also shows why playing the game abroad in new conditions through a Sport Lived gap year is both immensely challenging and beneficial for young cricketers looking to further their games.
They may have their most prolific pair of opening bowlers yet this series brings new demands on England’s attack. The likes of Broad and Anderson will have to insert changes of pace, bowling slightly fuller and nipping the ball back in from outside off to bring the stumps into play. There won’t be the pace and the swing to frequently induce batsmen into an outside edge. To maximise the potential for turn, the spin bowlers need to bowl wicket to wicket and try to skid the ball through prodding defences. Delivering the ball at a slower pace may also be necessary if they want to maintain control over the ball whilst still spinning it. Cricket’s bowling basics remain the same irrespective of conditions but serious adjustment will be needed in how England carries out their work if they are to regularly send Pakistan batsmen back to the pavilion.
Coach Trevor Bayliss acknowledged the test facing his batsmen by hiring the great Mahela Jayawardene, one of the finest ever players in these conditions, to tutor them on how to cope on wickets that will have no lateral movement and a lack of pace and bounce. Cook and co cannot afford to get bogged down with men crouching noisily around the bat looking for mistakes from tentative and frustrated batsmen. It was the turn of Pakistan’s spinners that did for England in 2012, often for leg before. More often than not getting hit on the pad on these pitches is bad news. To excel they will need to work the bowling, pace and spin, to their advantage, rather than taking them on. On such wickets where the runs are not likely to flow, teams have to persevere and bat deep into the innings. For what is a relatively young and inexperienced English batting unit, the difficulty of that assignment is clear.
Therefore to do the business with both bat and ball, strength of character is a must. Patience is the order of the day, not recklessness. They will need to mentally adapt by reigning in their expansive instincts but being able to recognise when the time is right to strike out or try something different. A confidence in your ability to deliver through periods where the wickets or runs seemed to have temporarily dried up is a necessity. It is a test of temperament as much as ability. They cannot afford to waste chances in the field that may arrive rarely and will often be punished. Do not expect to see matches during this series finish within 2 or 3 days with wickets dropping left, right and centre or balls regularly flying to the boundary like in the Ashes. They are more than likely to go the distance. To come out on top over 5 days of gruelling cricket England’s players will need a mental toughness on top of natural talent. Physically each day of each Test will take its toll too, especially for the bowlers whose workloads will have to be carefully managed. Standing in the field for sustained periods in intense heat is a real test of concentration that will sap physical energy and mental endurance.
There are few other sports which put such a demand upon the tactical astuteness of a captain and this is even more the case during games in such novel and trying surroundings. In the field Cook will need to keep changing his bowlers so different lines and lengths prevent batsmen from getting comfortable, having the judgement to know when to move between his quicks and the two spinners that the surfaces in the UAE demand. Traditional English fields with 3 or 4 slips and a couple of gullies also won’t cut the mustard out here – slips will need to be brought out early and catchers put in front of the wicket in order for bowlers to steadily apply the pressure and ‘out-patience’ the batsmen. On these types of pitches, Cook will be desperate to win the toss and get his side in to bat first to build a big lead and wear out the opponents in the field.
While playing cricket in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa through a gap year with Sport Lived may not provide the same slow, turning wickets that England are now enduring in the UAE the rudimentary challenges remain the same – pushing yourself to adapt technically, physically, mentally and tactically in order to thrive in conditions you are far from accustomed too. Do this and you will add yet more strings to your cricketing bow, making giant strides in your personal development.
The last time England played Pakistan in the UAE three years ago they were the world’s number one side. They lost the series 3-0. Transferring their form from the green grass of home to the stifling conditions here is clearly no easy task. Transferring your own cricket talents to a new country is a task you should not shy away from.
Discover cricket gap year programmes Sport Lived offer by clicking here.