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August 16, 2006
On the eve of the final Test of the summer, it is to Australia that England's attention inevitably turns. In spite of the players' dead-batting insistence that their focus on beating Pakistan at The Oval tomorrow remains unswerving, secretly many realise their Ashes prospects hinge on the next five days, win or lose.
Of the batsmen, it is Ian Bell who has most caught the eye this summer with three successive hundreds, each dripping with class. If he reaches three figures in south London tomorrow, he will equal the considerable feat of Ken Barrington in scoring hundreds in four successive Tests. That Barrington did it twice, in 1961-62 and 1967-68, is by the by: Bell's stock has risen exponentially this summer. He is a batsman transformed from the rabbit on show against Australia last year.
It's all about the momentum, for England, as their captain, Andrew Strauss, mentioned after a training session at The Oval today. "Momentum's important and winning becomes a habit," he said. "If we can make it three in a row, we'll have really good momentum heading into the Ashes and, more immediately, the one-day series, as we all really want to improve on what we did against Sri Lanka.
"If we win this Test match, that gives us a nice launch pad which with to go into that series."
The most appealing aspect of England's resurgence against Pakistan has been their evident strength in depth, and ability to cope without their talisman Andrew Flintoff.
"It was important to learn to win without Fred," Strauss said." "But we can play without him. We're a better side with him in it, but we've had to explore different options and different tactics with him not playing."
Such Ashes distractions for England will not concern Pakistan however, for they have their own problems to contend with. Comprehensively beaten at Old Trafford and Headingley to suffer their first series defeat in England for 24 years, their beleaguered squad has grown to 19 with the addition of the one-day specialists. The opening batting combination has been a fair disaster all summer, culminating in the injudicious promotion of Kamran Akmal, their embattled wicketkeeper. For the final Test, Mohammad Hafeez will partner Imran Farhat as Pakistan desperately seek a pair to match Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick. The lingering hope for Bob Woolmer, their coach, is their record at The Oval in which have they have won their last two Tests.
Though Pakistan's batting has been led by the three colossi - Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and the impenetrable Mohammad Yousuf - it is their bowling which has caused the most concern. Only the tall, tireless Umar Gul has regularly troubled England with his direct lines outside the off stump, and his 13 wickets this series are testament to a man who has ably led such an inexperienced attack. His new-ball opening partner on the other hand, Mohammad Sami, has been all at sea; with his confidence clearly on the wane, and his pace lacking, England's batsmen have played him out of the attack with ease. He remains a potential match-winner for Pakistan, but potential wicket-takers are about as useful as a chocolate teapot.
While England buoyantly prepare for tomorrow, once again the attention will be on Monty Panesar who has, so far, coped admirably with the limelight. With 16 wickets at 25, he has not only afforded Strauss control but taken vital, match-turning wickets when it most matters. Indeed Strauss, writing his weekly column for the Daily Telegraph conceded his delight, and surprise, at Panesar's dramatic effect on the summer while also dampening the fear that he might be bullied out of the attack in Australia, thanks to his spinner's overwhelming enthusiasm, ability and love for the game.
"Monty's excellent," Strauss insisted today. "First and foremost, he loves playing and practicing. He is more than willing to put in the time and effort to do that."
Tomorrow's Test is far from the dead-rubber it may appear. Much is at stake for both teams, and both captains. While England's focus may be drifting towards Australia, Pakistan - and their captain, Inzamam, in particular - will be gunning for a fight back.