England wary of the easy route
England aren't accustomed to doing things the easy way. Their Ashes victory was a long-drawn-out, agonisingly incremental affair, while their tour of South Africa last winter involved an innings defeat at Cape Town and two near-misses either side, at Durban and Johannesburg. They won the second of those and should have won the first, but could also have lost the lot. As a rule, they like to sail as close to the wind as possible, which makes for thrilling viewing, but no shortage of uncomfortable moments along the way.
After two days of intensely serene progress from England, today they found themselves pushed back onto the ropes as Pakistan relocated the spirit that had been sapped during their first-innings collapse. At 266 for 3, with Marcus Trescothick entrenched on a blameless batting strip, England had visions of a 500-plus total and maybe even an innings victory against a side prone to demoralisation. Instead, Pakistan chipped and chivvied, then batted with aplomb, to haul themselves right back into contention. Minus-19 for 2 overnight is not parity by any means, but Danish Kaneria awaits on a wearing wicket, and nothing can be taken for granted by England.
"We've given ourselves a chance," said Trescothick afterwards, with less feeling than he might have otherwise have mustered, after seven-and-a-half hours of deliberate and indomitable brilliance. "Pakistan have got a long tail, so if we can get three or four tomorrow morning and get into it quick, it gives us an advantage." Given the current ennui in the pitch, Trescothick believed a target of 250 was attainable, but if Kaneria finds any grip early on in the fourth innings, then England would not fancy chasing much more than 200.
Aside from Trescothick, who added 58 more to his overnight 135, it was a day of bit-part performances from England. Andrew Flintoff promised a reprise of his Trent Bridge phlegm before giving his wicket away when beautifully set, while Trescothick's second dose of the nervous 190s (he made 194 against Bangladesh in June) left an otherwise reliable tail exposed to the new ball. It needed the late intervention of Flintoff, this time with the ball, to ensure that the initiative had not been entirely squandered by the close.
For Flintoff, it was just business as usual in what has been a talismanic year. He was entrusted with the new ball ahead of Steve Harmison because he alone in the side can provide brutal aggression and metronomic discipline in equal measures, just as he had earlier been entrusted with the good health of England's innings, after their slump to 271 for 5. It is a mark of the man that he can already have contributed five wickets and a 45 to England's cause, and still the bulk of his work is to be done.
Flintoff's promotion, in fact, meant the resumption of a familiar old pairing for England's new ball. At Ahmedabad and Bangalore four long years ago, he and Matthew Hoggard were the rookies entrusted with the onerous task of shackling India's strokemakers, as Nasser Hussain carried his cajoling style of captaincy to new heights. It was there they both learned the virtues of patience, and as Pakistan's lead begins to gather tomorrow afternoon, both men can be expected to dredge their prior experience from their memory banks.
Experience is something that Kevin Pietersen, for all his derring-do and air of a seasoned campaigner, currently lacks; his stiff-wristed dismissal today - caught at short leg off Kaneria for 5 - was alarming for its familiarity. It was like watching Flintoff himself on that very same tour in 2001-02, when he prodded and poked his way to 26 runs in five innings, perpetually tortured by Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble.
A masterclass from Shane Warne this summer has equipped England's batsmen with more tools for tackling legspin than they have ever before taken to the subcontinent. It is for that reason that they remain solid favourites with two days to go. But we've seen enough close squeaks in the past 12 months to surmise that, if there's a tricky route to be taken, England are as likely as not to sound it out.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo