As a newcomer to Dubai it has been a surreal experience just getting to the cricket stadium in the middle of what was so recently the desert.
There is still plenty of sand around, though now it swirls around all the half-finished high-rise buildings that surround the ground. Massive cranes (the metal ones) hang above these concrete skeletons but they never get the instruction to move. The money and the demand have dried up so there are no workers on these building sites.
Everything is on hold. Sometimes the cranes sway ominously for Dubai can be a windy city. If you are thinking of the third Test – and there will be plenty of seats available – pack at least one jumper.
The road nearby is a six-lane motorway, which is seldom empty; on the way we can see in the distance all the skyscrapers, testaments to all the riches that created this crazy place; closer to the road there are camels on the scrubland, remnants of an earlier era, which now, in this ultra-modern city, carry no one and nothing nowhere; instead they entertain at the races.
Down at the Cricket Academy there are two fine grounds, a luxurious indoor school and rows and rows of outdoor nets. Some of them mirror the properties of Mumbai and Nagpur, others Melbourne and Sydney; there may even be a Perth and a Johannesburg out there. Next door are the ICC offices in a functional, innocuous building, seemingly the only one in use for miles around. From there, in theory at least, the international game is run.
It could all be rather depressing and towards the end of February it will not be so surprising if the players of both sides are suffering from some form of Groundhog Day. Yet there is something gripping about this series so far. Perhaps it is simply that it is happening at all.
It was not the end of the world that the stadium in Dubai was practically empty (though there were apparently many more punters around than when Pakistan played Sri Lanka before Christmas). The cricket has been urgent and competitive – at least England were competitive when they were in the field. The pitch was not so soporific as we feared. And some odd things happened.
England’s conquering heroes batted like novices, failing to muster 200 in either innings. We could only find English rustiness combined with a superbly disciplined display by the most mature Pakistan side for years as explanations.
In 72 Tests between the two countries this was only the second time that the average age of England’s side had been younger than Pakistan’s. This is not a result of Andrew Strauss leading a load of whippersnappers. It is because Misbah-ul-Haq, himself 37, is in charge of a gnarled old Pakistan side. And they are proving to be a damn good one too, which has not lost since that infamous 2010 series in England.
Pakistan’s team was decimated by the spot-fixing saga. Five of the victorious side in Dubai – Misbah, Asad Shafiq, Abdur Rehman, Adnan Akmal and Aizaz Cheema – had never played a Test against England before. Yet here they were thrashing the number one side in the world, by playing simple, no-nonsense, error-free cricket. For England there were no easy runs and no easy wickets. By contrast the Pakistan bowlers sat back and waited patiently – but not for very long – for their rewards.
England have been surprised – and thrashed. Thus there is a chance that history might repeat itself. After the 2005 triumph against Australia the England team was easily defeated in Pakistan. Now feted as the number one side in the world – and they have been feted since reaching that pinnacle last summer – they have been thrashed.
Neither Flower nor Andrew Strauss are the type to allow any complacency. Moreover this team has stayed together, unlike the 2005 Ashes side, which disintegrated rapidly. So everyone here was stunned by the margin of the Dubai defeat. Have they been complacent, taking all those autumn plaudits to heart? Are they simply rusty? Are they so fragile in the sub-continent? Can they bounce back as they did after drubbings in Perth, Johannesburg and Headingley? We will learn a bit more in Abu Dhabi.
What is clear is that Pakistan has undergone a quiet revolution. Misbah runs the show with as much anonymity as possible; there are no frills, no arguments, but he does not miss a trick. In Dubai his team played with ruthless efficiency and that is all they had to do to win comfortably. We expect and hope for more of a contest on an even flatter pitch in Abu Dhabi. I’d rather watch five days’ cricket than visit a shopping mall.