Tantalizingly poised - all three possibilities alive
So tantalizingly poised is the final Test of this overly truncated rubber at Old Trafford, that going into the final day all three possibilities - either side winning or a draw - are very much alive. England would, however, be happy at having done the first thing right when chasing a sizable 370 batting last, by not losing a wicket and whittling down the target by 85 and scoring at a fast clip, 3.86 runs per over to be precise.
With openers Atherton and Trescothick still unconquered, on the final day on a wicket still good for batting, England need to score 285 in 90 overs at 3.16 runs per over. A task not impossible by any means, unless the Pakistan off-spinner Saqlain Mushtaq, getting grip and turn from the roughened up surface, gets back into his wicket-taking ways.
Atherton avoids a Wasim Akram bouncer
Photo © CricInfo
If Pakistan has to win, a whole lot would depend on Saqlain, more so because the moving spirits behind Pakistan's spectacular series triumphs in 1992 and 1996, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis only seemed to be a shadow of their glory days. They didn't lack in effort and motivation, only in penetration as they continued to make the mistake of bowling short and wide. Early on, both Atherton and Trescothick milked them for some easy boundaries as the openers seized the initiative, and then continued in the same vein against Saqlain Mushtaq and Abdur Razzaq.
On a wicket, home ground of the other great contemporary off-spinner Muralitharan, likely to provide him quite a bit of assistance, Saqlain remains the trump card. But to gain the most out of the conditions, Saqlain will have to flight the ball instead of wheeling out the flatter stuff that he did on the fourth day.
England for the moment seem quite composed, and well on the way to a fifth successive series win. But things could change, and quickly, with the fall of a wicket or two, as happened on the third day when Graham Thorpe got himself run out to land England in a spot of bother and a lead of 46 was conceded in the end.
On the final day, it is likely that England would keep the pressure on the Pakistani bowlers, at least initially, to see how things go from there. In case they get off to a good start, not losing wickets and getting runs in the bargain, the Pakistanis would be hard-pressed to contain them to settle for a draw. And, even if they succeed, that is all England needs to keep the winning spree intact.
As for Pakistan, even if they end up winning at Old Trafford, it would still be a huge comedown for it would mean that for the first time since 1987 they would not be winning a series in England. But then overall they have not done enough to beat an upbeat England on home territory.
That said, one has to acknowledge that the Pakistani batsmen, at least the best two Inzamam and Youhana and also the rising star Younis Khan, have all shown signs of coming to grips with the conditions, which bodes well for the NatWest triangular. On the fourth day, however, all three perished with greater things well within their sights.
Inzamam drives Hoggard in his second innings
Photo © CricInfo
Youhana's hitting form is of crucial importance for Pakistan's campaign in the tri-nation limited-overs contest, and from some of the exquisite strokes he unleashed it was evident that he was getting there.
The series has most poignantly brought one fact to the fore: Pakistan now has to contemplate life without Wasim and Waqar. Waiting for 2003 World Cup as their swan song could have severe repercussions. We'll talk more on that later.