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August 8, 2010
This was the day of defiance that this series so desperately needed. Against all expectations - not least those of England's bowlers who had envisaged two days of R & R - Pakistan located the cornered-tiger spirit that has long been their tactic of last resort, and conjured up a batting display that started out with dedication and erupted into delight. Under the clearest skies of the contest, and with little fear of lateral movement, Pakistan overcame their suspicions about a two-paced surface and were able to remember the simple pleasures of putting bat to ball.
By the close Pakistan's lead was a slender 112, but even that was 40 runs more than they themselves had mustered in their first innings - not to mention 24 runs better than the total for which they had skittled Australia at Headingley. "Cricket is such a game that you are never out of it until it ends," said Pakistan's captain, Salman Butt. "This is a total that teams can get out to, and with the kind of bowling we have - and the wicket has taken spin as well - we surely have a chance."
There are the inevitable precedents for the sort of capitulation that Butt is now envisaging - at Sydney in 1993-94, Fanie de Villiers produced the spell of his life as Australia crumbled to 111 all out, chasing 117, while at Edgbaston in 1981, Ian Botham's summer of miracles continued with his 5 for 1 in 28 balls as the Aussies once again tripped up in sight of a straightforward victory. With Umar Gul injured, pride is probably as much as Pakistan can hope to salvage in this particular contest, but with them you never know. With a sniff of incentive to fire up their fielders, and some all-important cloud cover to get Amir and Asif in the groove, they've certainly got the guns to give England a real fright.
It might seem strange, then, to suggest that England needed a day like this as well. They might not appreciate the reminder right this minute, but all summer long, a suspicion has lingered that they've simply had it too good. When, for instance, Azhar Ali punched James Anderson through mid-off for 2, it was the first time in four innings Pakistan had reached 50 with fewer than six wickets down. On the one hand such a statistic underlines the sheer excellence of England's efforts with the ball; on the other, it begs numerous questions about the application of Pakistan's batsmen, as well as England's troubling lack of incisiveness when at last those clouds deigned to shift.
"The wicket is as dead as a dormouse," said England's spinner, Graeme Swann, whose career-best figures of 6 for 60 did at least suggest that, like one of those chalet-shaped barometers featuring a husband and wife on a pivot, England's attack does contain options for rain and shine alike. But Swann can only bowl from one end at a time, and once his initial threat had been negated, his colleagues found no alternative means of getting past Pakistan's ever-broadening bats. As Stuart Broad's latest and most irksome case of white-line fever demonstrated, they did not enjoy the hard yakka one little bit.
"Pakistan made us work really hard, but I don't think it is any surprise that that was going to happen at some stage," said Swann. "We have bowled them out cheaply three times in the series so far, so it's just the way the innings went. It led to a few frustrations because of the fact we got through the top order and it was the guys lower down who made us work, but Pakistan deserve the plaudits rather than us getting the downers."
That may indeed be the case, for Zulqarnain Haider's first substantial Test innings was a treat to behold. He reacted to his incredible king-pair reprieve like a man who believed that destiny had just spoken, and he found in Amir and Saeed Ajmal a superbly contrasting pair of allies - one who wormed his way under England's skin with his limp-batted refusal to budge, and another whose array of leg-side biffs carried the fight to another level, once the threat of an innings defeat had been averted and the onus shifted to the creation of a defendable lead.
But in dealing with both challenges, England found themselves distinctly lacking in ideas. "I took a perverse pleasure in watching Ajmal get his fifty," said Swann. "It was a knock that I like to play with fielders spread all over the place and annoying the bowlers, but we lost our way a little bit when he was batting. We probably went to three men out, bowling bouncers, a little bit early. But I thought they stuck at it very well - it was so slow, so turgid for the seamers."
It has been a year of strange and unsettling contrasts for England. In the space of five days they rolled Pakistan for consecutive totals of 80 and 72, having claimed 20 wickets in the space of two sessions in their previous Test outing, against Bangladesh at Old Trafford in June. Prior that, however, Tamim Iqbal had slammed 266 runs from 276 balls in three of the most carefree onslaughts imaginable, and if you rewind even further, to the first Test in Chittagong, it was Swann himself who lost his rag through frustration, as Junaid Siddique's century kept England waiting for their hardest-earned win of the year.
Australia's batsmen will have watched today's events with interest. Notes will have been taken - much like the ones that John Buchanan is bringing in the other direction in his newly-announced capacity as an ECB consultant - and a tendency towards toothlessness will have been acknowledged, regardless of the rip that Swann applied to his third delivery of the match, an absolute snorter that pitched outside Imran Farhat's leg stump and clipped the top of off.
Magic balls are one thing, but a lack of mystery is another - and there's something a touch transparent about England's attack when the heavens conspire against them. Ajmal Shahzad, and his ability to reverse-swing the old ball at pace, would have been an asset in the circumstances, but in the absence of a five-man attack, his is a luxury that is unlikely to be countenanced.
Right at this moment, clear skies conjure up images of just one contest - the Ashes. And if England's sights are set on world domination, as Andrew Strauss declared they were before this Test, then it is no use for them to be big cats at home, but pussycats abroad - which is the very same accusation that was levelled at the current No.1 Test team, India, throughout the 1990s. Up until now, the attack has been spoiled by swing-friendly conditions, and while the advantage they have taken has been thrilling to behold, it's not exactly prepared them for the challenges that lie ahead.
"It's not a bad thing that we've had to work to get ourselves into this position," admitted Swann. "After getting three or four early wickets you do hope you will be able to go through, but they applied themselves well and put on two big partnerships, dead-batting the ball on a slow wicket."
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