England v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Old Trafford, 2nd day July 28, 2006

Gul rises above the expectations

Umar Gul toiled hard and rose above the Pakistani malaise © Getty Images
If you look at today in isolation, somehow ignoring Pakistan's first-day horror show, then their bowlers were persevering for much of today, if not ever really menacing. If you consider how many bowlers they are missing, then they deserve a little more accolade. In cricket, as in life, however, ifs are about as useful as 342-run deficits.

The day had begun promisingly, with the news that Imran Farhat had held on to a catch, though somehow typical of Pakistan's luck, he fractured a finger in doing so. As the day wore on, however, scant solace dripped through and what little there was centred around the performance of Umar Gul in particular, and if we're clutching at straws, then Mohammad Sami.

The business of expectations from Gul was always going to be a tricky one. His last act in international cricket for nearly two years, what many people will remember him by, was a dream spell, against India, and a match-winning one. Thus, if and when he returned, he was rarely going to be allowed to forget that. But the serious nature of his back injury and the fact that that Test was only his fifth should have lowered expectations.

This is only his fourth Test since he returned earlier this year but if the comeback hasn't been as dramatic as his temporary goodbye was, there remain encouraging signs. By some distance, Gul was Pakistan's best bowler. He seems to have bought some pace since his comeback - a result of enhanced weight training during his lay-off - perhaps in exchange for some accuracy. The action is also less halting than it once was, altogether more fluid.

Earlier in the morning, he found reverse-swing and brisk pace and with the new ball later, he managed movement off the pitch both ways. That spell - his best - was a more accurate indicator of his strengths; healthy pace, bounce and appreciable seam movement. Above everything else though he bowled as if ignorant of the quite hopeless position his side are in, which amid a sea of brooding, moody expressions in the field was a heartening thing.

The biter bit: Steve Harmison was hit on the helmet by Umar Gul, the best of Pakistan's bowlers © Getty Images

Fitfully, Sami supported him. Having continued initially much as he ended last night - aggressive, nippy and `with it' - he slumbered in the middle before briefly perking up again before tea. As well as adding another wicket to his tally, he can also celebrate the dubious distinction of not having let his bowling average slip to 50. But because the pattern was much as his career has been, it's best not to infer too much from the display.

The real disappointment though was the performance of Danish Kaneria. Having seen Monty Panesar find both bounce and turn on the first morning, Kaneria could justifiably have expected to reap some reward on this track. Except of course that this is Old Trafford, a ground on which he once bowled 70 wicketless overs (his most embarrassing performance he says) for Essex. He didn't bowl badly though nothing dispelled the impression that a Middle East peace deal might be negotiated before he breaks his duck. In the end, it took another unlikely occurrence - an attempted Steve Harmison reverse-sweep - to ensure that he did.

The result? As a collective, Pakistan were visibly lacking, not effort, but inspiration: a leader, a predator and eventually wickets. It's difficult to be too harsh about the bowling; injuries, we all say, should be no excuse but how many teams have had the depth to cover successfully the absence of three first-choice fast bowlers? Even Australia struggled on the two occasions Glenn McGrath went missing last summer and England themselves know how much the absence of a fast bowler can affect performances in the short term.

As a result, Pakistan have now failed to bowl England out in three successive innings and allowed six hundreds to be taken off their attack. Worryingly, with no sign of the return of any of their main bowlers soon, it doesn't look like they might take ten wickets soon. Or indeed at a reasonable cost.

Not that a worryingly sloppy display behind the stumps from Kamran Akmal helped. An astonishing year behind him, Akmal with the gloves (rather than the bat) has had a torrid time thus far on this tour. A couple of clangers at Lord's were followed by a terrible drop here and a stream of fluffed takes through the day. It could be down to an injured finger or it could just be the law of averages catching up with him.

In either case, it meant that by the day's end, Ian Bell - the only Englishman with cause to celebrate Andrew Flintoff's misfortune - was helping himself to an entirely untroubled and unchallenged century and leading England to a dominant position. The chances of Pakistan escaping with anything but a defeat appear remote, though if it turns out Harmison's little niggle is more than just that, then they will have improved slightly. But then we know all about ifs ...

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo