England have aspired to be the best Test team in the world for some time, but once they reached the top they suffered a severe bout of vertigo. The No. 1 ranked-Test team has been humiliated 3-0 in the UAE by a superb Pakistan bowling attack led, admirably, by Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman. No team has stumbled so suddenly after scaling the heights of the ICC's Test rankings. As the old cliché goes, it's often harder to stay somewhere than it is getting there.
Taking a start is crucial in any series but when it comes away from home, it becomes extremely important. England have not been the best of starters away from home, as defeats in Multan, Brisbane, Kandy, Hamilton, Chennai and Kingston, and draws in Centurion and Brisbane, over their previous 10 overseas tours, clearly show. Traditionally, England's conservatism when faced with different environs has been decisive in Test series openers, and in the UAE they failed to shed those inhibitions. Having been crushed in the first Test, they stumbled along through their desert trip.
Andrew Strauss' team, for all its potential and success over the last two years, remains weighed down by a history of struggles in subcontinental conditions. In ten Tests in Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the UAE) in the last five years, England have won two. Surprise, surprise, the losers were Bangladesh. In each Test series defeat, England's problems against spin played a big role. But what transpired in the UAE was their worst ever: their batting average in this series - 19.06 - was England's second-lowest ever.
The No. 1 Test team was humiliated by a spirited Pakistan. Through it all, an inability to conquer spin stood out.
Let's go back to the first tour of that timeframe, a three-Test series in Sri Lanka which the hosts won 1-0. In the dry surroundings of Sri Lanka's hilly Kandy, England came within 20 minutes of saving a topsy-turvy Test that had controlled until the second morning. From the time Muttiah Muralitharan picked up his first wicket, that of the skipper Michael Vaughan, the tide turned. England were bowled out for 281 - Murali took six - and then allowed Sri Lanka score 442 for 8. Set a target of 350 or just over a day to survive, England lost by 88 runs.
The pitch had a little to do with this, for it remained slow throughout and deteriorated somewhat on days four and five. In fact, England blunted Murali's threat for 32 overs before he took the second new ball and got some lift off the day-five surface. In the space of three balls, Murali separated an obdurate seventh-wicket pair and England were gone.
A dull, rain-affected match at Colombo's SSC followed. Murali took five in England's first-innings 351, and in the second the visitors reached 250 for 3 before rain ensured a lifeless match was closed. Without looking hapless against the world's most lethal spinner in his own backyard, England went into the final Test in Galle with a chance to level the series.
In what proved a minor miracle, five days of cricket were possible after a torrential downpour threatened any chance of play. After allowing Sri Lanka to score 499 for 8, England were bowled out for an embarrassing 81. The damage was done by three quick bowlers, with Murali managing just one tail-end wicket. England clung on to draw the match, with Alastair Cook scoring a gritty century and Matt Prior batting 100 balls for an unbeaten 19. Spin accounted for three of six wickets. All in all, despite the series defeat, England did not succumb to Murali.
A year later, England landed in India. Strauss scored twin centuries in Chennai in a Test England famously lost, thanks to Virender Sehwag's fourth-evening heroics and a famous fourth-innings century from Sachin Tendulkar. Strauss and Paul Collingwood played spin exceptionally well, playing down the ground and into the leg side with adept footwork. Of the 19 English wickets to fall, ten were to spin.
In cold and foggy Mohali, England drew with India. Kevin Pietersen scored an fine century, and India's spinners managed just six wickets in two innings. Another overseas series lost, but no alarm in the ability to handle spin.
In 2010, England went to Bangladesh and won 2-0. In Chittagong, they piled up 599 for 6 and then 209 for 7 on the way to a ten-wicket win. In Dhaka, they made 496 to take a first-innings lead of 77 and then chased down a target of 209 with nine wickets in hand. Handling a phalanx of spinners on slow and low tracks can be a difficult proposition but England’s batsmen performed more than creditably; Cook led the run charts with 342, Ian Bell and Pietersen reached the 250-mark, Collingwood picked up a century while averaging 49, and Jonathan Trott and Prior managed one half-century each.
Cut to January 2012. England, now the No. 1 Test team, have lost the series to Pakistan in the UAE. Their ability to play quality spin has been exposed. In Dubai they were bowled out for 192 and 160 to lose the series opener inside three days. Ajmal finished with 10 for 97 in the match as 15 English wickets fell to spin. In Abu Dhabi, chasing a target of 145, England went from 21 for 0 to 72 all out, with Rehman snaring 6 for 25. In all, 19 wickets fell to spin in the Test. In the final match in Dubai, England made 141 and 252, with 14 batsmen falling to the slow stuff.
This was England's worst overseas tour since the 5-0 Ashes whitewash in 2006-07. But unlike in Australia, the batsmen failed to adjust and deliver. Their batting has been exposed in conditions that were far from menacing - not one of the three surfaces could be termed alarming - by a three-pronged spin attack that certainly ranks as the best in Test cricket today.
Pietersen has endured his worst series of three Tests or more, managing a meagre 67 runs in six innings. Eoin Morgan's Test career looks derailed after 82 runs in as many innings, with scores of 24 and 31 adding up to nearly 70 percent of his tally. His inability to read Ajmal and Rehman was staggering.
Bell's claims of being a complete Test batsman lie in tatters with a series return of 51 runs at an average of 8.50, 29 of which came in one visit to the crease. Spin did for him four of six innings - thrice he succumbed to Ajmal's doosra - and his dismissal in England's final innings of the series summed up Bell's struggle as he popped the easiest of catches to cover point off Umar Gul.
Prior's series average of 37.50 owes much to unbeaten knocks of 70 and 49, while Cook, Trott and Strauss' mid-20s averages in three Tests only indicate how poor England have been. Of the 60 England wickets to fall in three Tests, spin accounted for 48. It was a shambolic series for the No. 1 Test team.
With two Tests in Sri Lanka and four in India in the not-too-distant future, England have plenty to do to prove they are indeed the best team in the world.