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July 15, 2006
Saturdays at Lord's are often soporific. On sun-bleached afternoons when the picnickers are out in force, the cricket can seem a mere sideshow, with the players cast adrift on a sea of coronation chicken baguettes and hospitality-box ennui. It's one of the reasons why visiting sides tend to rise to the occasion more readily than their hosts. They only get to play here once every four years.
But hang on, we're not making excuses for England's performances anymore. That was the team's pre-match edict, as delivered in no uncertain terms by their one remaining strike option, Steve Harmison. Forget the fact that he quashed his own argument by adding how much he hates bowling at Lord's, it was an admirable attempt to draw a line under the events of the past three months, and get on with the business of winning cricket matches.
But then, along comes a day like this, and suddenly a wave of sympathy washes back in. England aren't making any excuses, but today they might have been excused if they had. Try as they might, there was simply no way through against a batsman who has scored runs for fun in his nine Tests against England, and is on the verge of his second double-century in consecutive innings. The best ambitions of the bowlers were thwarted by a big, bearded brick wall.
Mohammad Yousuf has been praying five times a day since his controversial conversion to Islam, and today - as on every other day - he attributed each of his 185 runs to Allah's benevolence. Long gone seem the days when God was widely held to be an Englishman. The only succour being offered to England's perspiring bowlers was an early nightwatchman dismissal, a remarkable miscalculation from Inzamam-ul-Haq, and a late flash of inspiration from Kevin Pietersen - old Goldenballs himself, as Liam Plunkett later described him.
Plunkett is a man who's taken some licks in his brief Test career. His first outing was another Yousuf-led beasting, at Lahore back in December, and on his previous appearance at Lord's, against Sri Lanka in May, he beat the edge with cruel regularity, then looked on aghast as his fielders shelled the chances that should have made him a hero. "It's always in the back of your mind," he admitted, after Pietersen dropped Kamran Akmal at short-cover - his favoured position for Lord's-based clangers, "but you can't think too much about it.
"It'll be an early night for me," added Plunkett, after serving up 21 overs in a long and tiring day. "I don't mind longer spells because that's what I prefer to do, but it does take quite a bit out of you when you've only played one-day cricket for the last month. You can always wish you'd bowled straighter and better lines, but doesn't quite pan out like that. Their batsmen know their own games and are very experienced, but we'll come back tomorrow and have a rethink."
All summer long, England have looked like a side waiting for inspiration, but today there was nothing much more that their captain, Andrew Strauss, could have done. Whereas England's centurions had spoken of Pakistan's clever use of reverse swing, Yousuf had no such platitudes for his opposition. Without Simon Jones or even Jimmy Anderson to manipulate the old ball, the all-day-long menace that England's seam attack once posed has vanished. When Abdul Razzaq came to the crease in the 63rd over, he was greeted by a single slip and a staggered defensive field. At 241 for 5, sit tight and wait for the new ball was England's only option.
Harmison did eventually oblige with his third new-ball scalp, but for most of the innings, his role has been that of chief spokesman in the England bowling self-help group. "Yesterday I felt a bit rushed, so Harmy came over and told me to relax and it worked," said Plunkett. "It's always good to have someone patting you on the back, and that's what's so good about the team at the minute. We still believe 100% in each other. We can't go on complaining about the injuries and what's happened to different people. You just need to back yourself."
It's all a little disheartening, especially when you consider that Pakistan are even more devastated by injuries than England. This match consists of two very green attacks testing their mettle against depleted but formidable batting line-ups. It's not the contest we had so been so eagerly awaiting, and given the fascinating and animated history between the two sides, that is a great, great pity.
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