England v Pakistan, 4th Test, The Oval, 1st day August 17, 2006

Asif teaches England to suck eggs

Mohammad Asif: out-Englished the English© Getty Images

Here, finally, was the acid test that England's batsmen have been both desperately needing and happily avoiding all series. They've been scoring runs for fun against a supine attack, but a minute change of personnel translated into a massive change of resolve for Pakistan. Mohammad Asif took over from the hopelessly wayward Mohammad Sami, and the narrative of their summer was transformed.

Not that Duncan Fletcher saw it that way afterwards. "Asif bowled well, but he didn't make much difference really," said England's coach. "[Umar] Gul bowled well too and he's been in their attack all the time. We just gave away a lot of soft wickets and there probably was a bit of complacency. This is the one time we haven't clicked as a unit, but sometimes that can happen, All in all, it's been an off day in all departments.

"There haven't been many interviews I've been in lately," Fletcher added wryly, acknowledging that his very presence in front of the cameras said more about England's performance than his words ever would. The Duncan Day had returned with a vengeance, at precisely the moment when everyone - team, spectators and media alike - had begun to believe in the renewed hype.

"No-one's a machine, you can't play cricket well every day, every Test match," Fletcher added, although given the identity of their nemesis and his modus operandi, he might have thought differently about that statement. With his love of line and length and zip off the seam, Asif is arguably the most machine-like bowler on display in this match - Pakistan's answer to Glenn McGrath, as Younis Khan recently described him.

"McGrath is a big name, I want to be a similar big name," said Asif afterwards, with not a hint of bravado in his voice. In his halting yet communicative English, he worked his way through the English seam bowler's handbook, extolling the virtues of line, length, exploiting early moisture, and bowling maiden overs. "Every captain wants one bowler who disturbs the batsmen every ball," he explained, adding that England's own bowlers - aside from Matthew Hoggard - had pitched it too short. His month-and-a-half at Leicestershire earlier this season was clearly time very well spent.

Asif has previous with this England team. At Lahore in November, he took 7 for 62 and 3 for 44 as Pakistan A waltzed to victory in a warm-up match that was a harbinger of the hard times to come; both in terms of the result - a six-wicket, three-day thumping - and the knee injury to Michael Vaughan that has cast a shadow over the side ever since. Pakistan have a proud record in England - before this tour they had been unbeaten since 1982, and at The Oval they have won three games to England's two, including each of the last two encounters. With Asif at their disposal throughout, not to mention Shoaib Akhtar and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, they would surely not have surrendered so meekly.

Kevin Pietersen: an unhappy return to the scene of his greatest triumph © Getty Images

Such set-backs, however, are part and parcel of the modern game, as Andrew Strauss rightly pointed out before this match, and England's series victory is thoroughly deserved because they had an equally depleted line-up, but managed to regroup faster and more effectively than their opposition. Pakistan have flirted with 25 players in the course of their summer in an attempt to patch up their weaknesses; For England, Andrew Flintoff has not been missed, except perhaps in this evening's lacklustre session. That is ample proof that the best team has won.

Of course, Asif's return has come too late for Pakistan's series prospects (although to call it a return verges on hyperbole, seeing as he has played just five matches in his career). For England, perversely, it has come in the nick of time. Though they seek to deny it, this match is effectively an audition for starring roles in Australia in three months' time, and as such, it is better to be reminded of their fallibilities now, than on the first morning at Brisbane. "A kick up the arse," is probably how Vaughan would have described a day such as this.

If the day raised more questions than answers, then at least there is time to mull over the implications. Marcus Trescothick's woeful series hit rock bottom, a nadir he has not touched since the Caribbean tour in the spring of 2004. But he is the sort of player who can slap three hundreds in a one-day series, and be right as rain come the big day. Meanwhile Kevin Pietersen, "a notoriously bad starter" in the opinion of the Aussies, suffered his second first-baller in consecutive innings against the McGrath-like Asif. That, however, is not so much food for thought as a grain of interest. He'll certainly be alright on the night.

More intriguing is the scrap between Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell, which finished on this occasion with a double knockout. Both looked bristly for as long as they lasted, but neither was able to advance their case for retention at Brisbane as they mustered 14 runs between them. Bell, in particular, will be dismayed by his failure, because he has been so commanding while the going has been good, but once again, he's been unable to stamp his authority on a situation that was sliding away. But then Collingwood's claim rests on his cool under fire. He'd have had visions of another Nagpur as he came to the crease.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo