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August 6, 2006
It's a changed world since the Old Trafford Test last week. For those three heady days, England thought they'd found the cure for their post-Ashes blues, as Steve Harmison and Monty Panesar combined on a springboard pitch to rip the heart, spine and several yards of intestine out of Pakistan's batting line-up. Brute force at one end, and pure mind-games at the other - an intoxicating mixture that reaped combined match figures of 19 for 169.
One man, however, was less willing than the rest of the nation to get carried away, and for 99 overs, while Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan were compiling their epic stand, his reticence seemed amply justified. Duncan Fletcher was perhaps mindful of Headingley's reputation as a spinner's graveyard when he doused Panesar's admirers in an ice-bath of water last week. After all, only two English spinners have taken wickets here in the last decade, and one of those was the part-time leggie, Mike Atherton, in 1996. Even the great Shane Warne has managed just three scalps in three visits.
"Would we need Monty on a green top?" Fletcher famously asked. "We have to look at the balance of the side and it's very important that we look at Monty on wickets that don't help him as much as it did today."
Well, he's had a good look now. On a pitch offering nothing to bowlers of any type, and on which Danish Kaneria appeared yesterday to have been reduced to tears, Monty wheeled away for a third of the Pakistan innings, for the hugely respectable figures of 3 for 127. He conceded his runs at well under three an over - almost, dare one say it, a Gilesish return. But, unlike Giles, he more often than not retained three men round the bat. For Panesar, attack is invariably the best form of defence - even when your opponents are rumbling along in a record-breaking stand.
Admittedly, he owed his eventual breakthrough to Inzamam-ul-Haq's largesse (or should that be large chest?), but nothing that he did in between whiles veered from the utterly professional. He batted for an hour-and-a-half in the nets on Saturday morning, en route to a determined 5 not out; he inspired unimaginable devotion from the Headingley faithful, a mob not exactly famous for their embracing of minorities, and what do you know, he held onto his second Test catch - a beautifully judged stooper that could so easily have gone wrong.
"Monty is a good bowler, he's not easy to play against," agreed Younis Khan, whose 173 from 286 deliveries was not the performance of a man easily tied down. "All the time you have to do your best against him. There is a little bit of grass [on this wicket] so he's not gripping as well [as at Old Trafford], but still it is not easy."
If Panesar's performance added up to one great big raspberry to his churlish coach, then perhaps Fletcher should try the same tactic with a few of his other players. Because if the fault for England's fecklessness in the first two sessions lay anywhere, it was not with the man who has worked harder than anyone else to eradicate the perception that he is a weak link.
Harmison blew hot and cold, as he invariably does; Sajid Mahmood was disappointing once again, frequently serving up four-balls to release the pressure that his height and pace can generate. And Matthew Hoggard, in front of his home crowd, was off-colour and off-target - a rare combination of failings for a man who can generally be relied upon to find a good length, even if the ball deigns not to swing.
Yousuf and Younis were magnificent, of course, but it was the determination allied to that magnificence that put them on a different plane to England's best performers. Of the eight centuries that that pair have made between them this year, only one has resulted in a score lower than 173. England, meanwhile, have managed the same number in this series alone, but only Collingwood at Lord's has gone past 150. Kevin Pietersen's 135 is the next highest, but his innings ended with a horrible and unworthy slog that had Alec Stewart frothing at the mouth in his Sunday newspaper column.
"If you can survive a few overs, then this pitch is good for batting," said Younis, an assertion that is borne out by a scorecard containing four large hundreds and a next-highest score of 38. "We played it session-by-session, always looking for quick singles, and making sure we reached our first target of 500. Tomorrow, our bowlers need to keep it simple and hit the deck. They are capable but they are out of touch, especially Mohammad Sami. But tomorrow, insh'allah, he'll find his rhythm. Tomorrow's a new day."
Suddenly, from a position of impregnability, England look like the only side that can lose this match. "We have to make sure we stick to our gameplans and bat like we did in the first innings," added Collingwood. They'd do worse than take inspiration from Panesar, one of the few Englishmen who has seemed utterly focussed on giving his all to the cause.
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