You know what? I’m actually quite excited. It’s been a while since we’ve seen some competitive test cricket and I’ve rather missed it. Although the World T20 was entertaining, and England did surprisingly well the reach the final, tense test cricket reaches the parts other sports cannot reach. Limited overs games, and the walkovers we saw during the Sri Lanka tour, don’t quite satisfy.
Because I’m looking forward to Lord’s so much, I’m slightly alarmed and disappointed that the Mohammad Amir issue (or ex-issue) seems to be overshadowing what could be a gripping series. I won’t dwell on this too much, mainly because I don’t want to dignify the extremely harsh recent comments made by Graeme Swann and Kevin Pietersen, however I can’t ignore the elephant in the room completely.
In case you haven’t read what these former players (who have never been short of an opinion) have said, Swann claimed he will ‘feel sick’ when Amir takes the field at Lord’s tomorrow. Meanwhile, KP has called for anyone involved in match-fixing, drugs or spot-fixing to be banned for life.
These aren’t the only two players and pundits to have a pop at Amir, but they’re certainly the two most high profile; therefore I can’t let their comments go without responding. While I understand the argument that the spot-fixing incident damaged cricket, was a criminal act, and I accept that some people will never be able to forgive and forget, I have a problem with cricketers moralising – particularly Graeme Swann, who was caught drink-driving a while ago because he needed a spanner to rescue his cat.
Although it’s important to note that Swann was ultimately cleared (mainly, from what I can tell, because there was a problem with the second blood sample provided to police) it seems a bit rich for someone who gets in a car after drinking three or four glasses of wine (by his own admission) to start acting like a moral arbiter.
Similarly, I think that Pietersen is wrong to group match-fixers, spot-fixers and drug cheats in the same bracket. These issues are complicated, far from black and white, and therefore a zero tolerance and one-size-fits-all punishment is inappropriate. Let’s not forget that KP’s big mate, Shane Warne, was banned for taking an illicit substance at one point. Should he have been banned for life irrespective of the drug taken and the broader circumstances?
I suspect that Kevin hasn’t thought this one through. He accuses Amir of only being interested in money, yet it’s easy to say that when you’ve been paid handsomely for several years (thanks to England’s comparatively generous central contracts) and you’ve got a few whopping IPL cheques tucked away in your back pocket. As a Pakistani, Amir hasn’t had the same opportunity.
Although I don’t condone what Amir did – he proved himself to be corruptible and criminal – he has been punished and it’s time to move on. A judge spent hours looking into his case (far longer than you and I, or Swann and Pietersen for that matter) and sent him to prison for six months in what is a foreign country to him. He was also banned from cricket for five years. It has hardly been a cakewalk for the lad.
Ask yourself, just for a second, whether you’re the same responsible person today as you were when you were 19? I know I’m not. It seems extraordinarily unforgiving to banish someone for life, and deny them the right to pursue their career indefinitely, for a naïve mistake they made when they were a teenager.
Anyway, back to the cricket. Phew! Amir’s presence, as a cricketer, is one of the reasons why this series is rather intriguing. For the first time in a long-time (and let’s not forget that South Africa were without Steyn and Philander for much of the winter) England’s fragile batting line-up should be under pressure.
One imagines that Cook and Root will needs to score heavily for England to make competitive totals. However, there are actually small question marks above these two batsmen too: Cook’s record against top class pace bowling is actually quite mixed, and his record in England isn’t as good as many would have us believe. Meanwhile, Root will be batting one place higher at 3. Joe has always had a slight weakness outside off-stump and was exposed at the top of the order against Australia in the past. Are these guys really going to be the bankers they usually are?
If Pakistan take early wickets, one suspects they’ll really fancy their chances. England have a well-publicised weakness at 4 and 5, and we can’t keep relying on Jonny Bairstow to get us out of trouble. Much is made of England’s lower middle-order, and it’s true they’ve rescued the innings many times in the past, but it’s much harder for lower order players to find success against quality bowlers. Genuine pace and mystery spin usually send tail-enders packing. Pakistan have both while England have neither.
England’s bowling attack might also struggle at Lord’s, especially as Jimmy Anderson and Ben Stokes are missing. Lord’s is usually pretty flat and England do occasionally struggle to take wickets there. The high-tech drainage system makes the strip quite dry, which might play into Pakistan’s hands.
Much will obviously depend on the performances of Stuart Broad and Steve Finn. Jake Ball (I’m assuming he plays ahead of Roland-Jones) is a novice with just 31 first class games under his belt. At the beginning of the summer, Mike Selvey claimed that Ball ‘just looks right’. Personally I’m not so sure. I saw Ball for the first time recently and was somewhat underwhelmed. He looks like a good county bowler but he wasn’t particularly quick and his action looked somewhat lumbering and laboured to me. Perhaps we was carrying a niggle? England’s lack of a quality spinner will also be a problem if Lord’s is flat.
In my opinion, Pakistan have a more complete and balanced side. They also have two world-class batsmen in Misbah and Younis but their supporting cast looks more settled and experienced. Hafeez, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed all average over 40 in test cricket. What’s more, all of their top six (with the exception of Shan Masood) have played fourty matches or more. England simply cannot say the same.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s attack has all the bases covered: there’s pace, swing, height, aggression, a left-arm angle, a quality leg-spinner and an orthodox off-spinner. England, by contrast, have a clutch of orthodox right arm fast-medium bowlers and a part-time offy. I’m sorry if this sounds a little negative but it’s the truth. Pakistan also come into this game with some decent (if not completely thorough) preparation and their top six in decent form.
However, before you reach for your rope and stool, there’s one big factor in England’s favour: England are England (and playing in England), and Pakistan are Pakistan (and playing abroad). This usually ends one way: England play above themselves and Pakistan ultimately give up.
I’ve heard so many stories over the years about Pakistan’s complete lack of professionalism (none of which, I’m afraid, I’m willing to publish here!) that I’m unsure how committed they’ll be. They also haven’t played much on the road recently. Although they have lots of quality cricketers, we don’t know how they’ll respond to English conditions.
I’m tempted, therefore, to argue that the Lord’s test will be more about Pakistan than England. If the tourists turn up, play hard and committed cricket (and don’t look for excuses), they should win. I fear that England will be overmatched at the beginning of the series, and although this should change when Anderson and Stokes return to the fold, it could be a difficult week for our lads. We’ll need our best players to take responsibility and perform at their best.
However, if the worst happens and Pakistan do manage to beat us, I just hope the focus isn’t Mohammad Amir. With the polarising politics of the last few weeks, I’m sick and tired of people making self-righteous but utterly subjective moral judgements. Let’s just focus on the cricket. After all, this could be a really, really good series.
PS I’ve just seen that Dmitri Old over at Being Outside Cricket has written an interesting piece on Amir which discusses the issue in a bit more depth. It’s definitely worth a read.