England v Pakistan, 4th Test, The Oval, 2nd day August 18, 2006

Send for the recyclers



Not a lot to celebrate: Matthew Hoggard takes a rare wicket on a bad day for England © Getty Images

Apparently The Oval generates more than 50 tonnes of rubbish in the course of a full Test match. This fascinating fact was brought to us today courtesy of the recycling consultants, London Remade, who have recruited the services of Alec Stewart to help push home their message to the paper-reading, cardboard-tray-wielding, lager-guzzling denizens of SE11.

"The amount of waste created at a Test match is astonishing," mused Stewart in a press release that, in the circumstances, could easily have passed itself off as one of his expert summaries on Radio Five Live. Because today was a day when, from England's perspective, the rubbish in the stands was as nothing compared to the rubbish out in the middle.

"I don't know whether it was as hard as it looked, it was definitely as bad as it looked," admitted a candid Matthew Hoggard afterwards. "We were below-par bowling, we were below-par fielding. And yesterday we were below-par batting. We're disappointed, I'm sure a couple of individuals are angry, but we've now got three days to put that right."

The most culpable fly-tipper of all was Steve Harmison. It's long been accepted that the rough and the smooth must be treated the same where Harmison is concerned. Like the girl with the curl, his performances veer between very, very good and horrid, and today it was most definitely the latter. He was short, he was wide, he was clattered for 78 runs in 15 overs, and some of the bouncers he served up might have punctured an extra hole in the Ozone layer. By the end he was resorting to clutching at his side in a show of discomfort, much as Andrew Caddick used to scratch at his footholes. "Harmy touches his side quite often," joked Hoggard. "He touches a lot of other things quite often as well."

Harmison is England's heir to Caddick, an equally enigmatic performer who likewise happened to be the most natural fast bowler of his generation. Only two Tests have gone by since everything fell into place for him. His 11 wickets at Old Trafford led to a frenzy of adulation, because when he clicks it all looks so effortless and natural. Pace, bounce, height and movement. There's simply no answer when a bowler with all four of those attributes gets it on the spot, and conversely, there are few alibis when he doesn't.

"When Steve takes 11 wickets, everyone thinks he'll get 11 every time, but it doesn't happen like that," Kevin Shine, England's bowling coach, told Cricinfo earlier this week. "High expectations are understandable, but what we mustn't do is put him under pressure. We've got other people who can bowl. We've got Sajid, we've got Matthew Hoggard, Monty Panesar. It's a team effort."

Well it is, and it isn't. Cricket is a team game played by individuals, as the old saying goes, and if certain key individuals fail to fire, it is harder still for the others to cover their backs - especially now that circumstance has forced England into utilising a four-man attack. The dangers of that strategy have always been apparent, not least to Duncan Fletcher, but the rewards seem all the sweeter when it actually pays off. Before this Test began, England seemed so balanced that Andrew Strauss was happily acknowledging that new avenues had been opened for when Andrew Flintoff returns.

Today's efforts in the field, however, will have changed that picture no end, although Hoggard insisted otherwise. "We've had a four-man attack all series, and we've winning 2-0 at the moment," he pointed out. "Obviously we've not bowled too well today, but we can't blame [the balance] for that. Pakistan are the third-best team in the world. They've lifted their game a little and we've dropped ours. In this game you can't afford to be 5% off your mark or you'll be found out."

That's precisely the trouble. Three of the bowlers were within touching distance of that 5% threshold - "I've bowled better, I've bowled worse," shrugged Hoggard. Harmison, sadly, doesn't deal in such small percentages. The listlessness transferred itself to every facet of the game, not least the fielding, while Strauss's case for the winter captaincy will undoubtedly have been undermined. In the absence of Flintoff, he even opened with Paul Collingwood after tea, in the vain hope that he might fulfil his brief as a partnership breaker and double his international wickets tally. Well, you've got to try something.

His captaincy credentials shouldn't be undermined. Strauss may have seemed helpless today, but then so too was Flintoff in the very first Test of the summer, against Sri Lanka at Lord's, when he decided the best course of action was to send down 51 overs off his own back. Some days the inspiration simply cannot be conjured up, if the individuals at your disposal are so badly off the pace.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo