November 16, 2000

Saqlain Mushtaq pegs back England in 1st Test

Pakistan tightened the screws around England after the visitors had appeared to bat them out of first cricket Test that began at the Qadhafi Stadium in Lahore on Wednesday.

A four-wicket burst by spin wizard Saqlain Mushtaq restricted England to 195 for four at stumps on the opening day after a 134-run opening stand between Michael Atherton (73) and Marcus Trescothick (71).

England might have been more precariously placed had debutant Qaisar Abbas held onto a sharp catch of Graham Thorpe off Saqlain Mushtaq when the left-hander was two. Saqlain's Surrey team-mate returned unbeaten on 22 alongwith Graeme Hick who was six at stumps.

It was not a particularly smart bit of thinking on the part of the Pakistan captain to have Qaisar in the lone first slip despite having specialists like Wasim Akram and Inzamam-ul-Haq in the field.

Saqlain Mushtaq finished with outstanding figures of four for 61 but struggled for support from the other end. Mushtaq Ahmad and Shahid Afridi, the two wrist spinners, turned down 32 overs between them without any success. At a time when Saqlain had provided the initial breakthrough and followed up with three wickets in quick successions, a wicket or two from the other end would have left Pakistan in a commanding situation.

It is not that Pakistan is in a tight spot. But having lost the crucial toss, the most important thing for the home team was to restrict England to the minimum score. The wicket, against all expectations, played decently on the first day. Though the ball kept low, the turn was neither square nor it hurried onto the batsmen to unsettle them.

The ball is unlikely to come off the surface quick in the next four days. But what looks inevitable is that the ball would turn more as the cracks would widen up with the odd ball keeping low. After losing the toss, Pakistan would be batting last and even a score around 150 to chase would be a difficult proposition because of their poor record.

Saqlain once again showed what a genius he was with the red cherry when he kept aside the conventional theory of a finger spinner as an economical bowler by picking up four wickets. He pulled out every trick up his sleeves by mesmerizing the Englishmen with his quicker ones, foxing them with the deliveries that go away and bewildering them with the airy ones.

It was Saqlain's sheer brilliance which left England captain Nasser Hussain look amateurish after the batsman had attempted to hit him out of the park at mid-on and ending up being caught by Wasim Akram at covers.

Hussain, unexpectedly, changed the batting order and came out at No 5 instead of his customary No 3 position. Maybe he preferred to retain the left-right combination to disturb the Pakistan bowlers' line, the fact is that he had scored on this tour and the previous ones while batting at the pivotal one-down position. Whatever may be the game plan, it didn't work out.

Saqlain, before getting Hussain, had showed no respect to his former Surrey skipper Alec Stewart by bowling a quicker one and pinning the 37-year-old batsman in front of the wickets for an easy decision for Australian umpire Darrell Hair.

Saqlain's consistency and patience rewarded him with the wickets of the two English openers who were caught sweeping. Trescothick found the top edge when he tried to sweep against the spin while Atherton hit right down Yousuf Youhana's throat at square-leg.

In front of nearly 2,000 spectators and under bright sunshine, Trescothick and Atherton started positively and build their innings with some fluent and confident drives. They took England to 76 for no wicket at lunch.

Trescothick, who was 44 at the interval, batted in his usual aggressive style in the second session by hitting the ball hard and into the gaps. He reached his third career half century from 113 balls with five boundaries before perishing for a 193-ball 71 that included six hits to the boundary.

Nevertheless, Atherton overshadowed his young partner with an innings of character, patience and discipline. The Lancashire batsman concentrated in nudging and pushing the ball in gaps instead of going after flamboyant strokes as evident from the fact that his 190-ball innings spanning 275 minutes yielded just three boundaries.

There was some concern over Atherton's form after he had scores of 22, 22 and 14. But the 32-year-old former England captain proved that he was a big match player by playing an innings which he will surely remember for a very long time. When he reached 61, he became the sixth Englishmen and the 18th overall to complete 7,000 runs in Test cricket.

"I am not a statistics minded person. I was told by someone on return to the pavilion that I had completed 7,000 runs. So naturally it is a great feeling to join the elite goup," Atherton said.

But his dismissal was soft and will certainly hurt him. A lapse of concentration probably be the reason for his departure as a ball earlier, Hair had turned down a vociferous bat and pad appeal. Television replays were inconclusive to show if Atherton had got the edge before going into the hands of Salim Elahi off Mushtaq Ahmad.

Normally, the trend of the Test is set on the first day. But this game seems to be evenly balanced at the moment. One thing is for sure though: more twists and turns await the followers of the game in this historic Test being played in Pakistan after a gap of 13 years.