Pakistan v England, 2nd Test, Faisalabad, 2nd day November 21, 2005

Swimming against the tide

Ian Bell: haggling England towards parity © Getty Images

It may have escaped your notice that England are slipping ever deeper into trouble in this series. The second day at Faisalabad was one of the more extraordinary in the history of Anglo-Pak sporting occasions, and there have been a few down the years. On-field controversies walked hand-in-hand with sumptuous strokeplay and deafening explosions, as every mini-session brought a new and bizarre twist to the narrative of the Test.

When the dust had cleared and the crowds had dispersed - of their own accord, this time, not by order of a rogue gas canister - the facts of the day were stark. England had been clobbered by a team of maverick talents who have chosen the perfect series to gel as a unit. Shahid Afridi's blistering assault on the new ball allowed Inzamam-ul-Haq to walk unhindered to his 23rd Test century, which in turn allowed Pakistan's tail to wag in the manner they had so conspicuously failed to achieve at Multan.

Three key wickets at the top of England's order and an impressive day's work was complete for Pakistan. Not even Inzamam's bizarre run-out and Afridi's subsequent ban for his nifty footwork in the bowlers' footmarks could take much gloss off their day. England have been out-muscled at every turn, and tomorrow they will need to flex some muscles of their own - most significantly, those of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff - if they are to approach even first-innings parity.

During the summer, Australia learned how much the momentum can shift in the space of a single agonising defeat, and now England themselves are learning the hard way. For two runs at Edgbaston, read 22 runs at Multan - the margin seems all the greater when it is hope and certainty that has been dashed, rather than a long-anticipated defeat confirmed.

Such failures touch upon completely different emotions to your common-or-garden hammerings, as England themselves well know. They had lost only three matches in their previous 24 Tests, but each of them - at Colombo, Cape Town and Lord's - was a total and utter shoeing. And on each occasion England distilled the experience to their advantage, and bounced back with victory in their very next game.

The circumstances are rather different now. Five days ago, England seemed on the brink of a 1-0 lead in the series, and needed to do nothing more complex than keep their heads to secure a seventh series win in a row. Now, however, they are swimming against the tide and losing their shape in their desperation to make amends for one morning's aberration.

Take Michael Vaughan for instance. His return lasted all of eight balls before he was bowled, yet again, this time by the admirable Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. Had he been fully match-fit, however, Vaughan would surely not have been facing the fateful delivery, having turned down an easy three through the covers in the same over. It's hardly conclusive evidence, admittedly, but like Glenn McGrath last summer, one wonders if Vaughan would be playing if the stakes had not been so high.

High stakes, however, bring out the best in some of England's characters, not least Pietersen, whose highest score of the tour to date is the 19 he managed on that fateful morning in Multan. He is 4 not out overnight, the junior partner in a vital fourth-wicket alliance with Ian Bell, whose demeanour could hardly have been meeker at the start of the series.

Yet Bell has flourished in the conditions, and is second only to Trescothick on the Pakistan bowling wish-list. He is a man who would thrive in the hustle and bustle of the city's bazaars, for he has an eye for a bargain and can haggle with the best of them when he knows he is onto a winner. The only emotion he expressed at Multan last week, after turning his Test career around with a finely-crafted 71, was regret that he had not cashed in completely on the batsman-friendly conditions.

As Afridi tacitly demonstrated with his swivel in the footmarks, the Faisalabad pitch has not yet broken up sufficiently to aid the spinners, and even Danish Kaneria's prodigious turn was coming slowly and in a telegraphed form. England have a day of favourable batting conditions ahead of them, in which they can approach parity and ensure that a share of the series is not beyond their grasp. But to achieve that, they can't afford to dwell on what's gone before. And they certainly can't afford to let one freaky day in Faisalabad deflect them from their task.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo