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November 20, 2005
There was a suspicion, in the build-up to this match, that Pakistan might seek to sit on their 1-0 lead, and bore England out of contention for the rest of the series. Faisalabad's bare, sunbaked wicket - which was yesterday being hand-scoured by an army of groundstaff and their scrubbing brushes - hardly implied an attacking intent, while the issues of dew and light that chop such swathes off either end of a day's playing time were expected to come to the fore as winter draws in.
But then, all the best plans are laid to waste when Shahid Afridi finds his range with the bat. Hard though England tried to keep a lid on a difficult situation, by the end of an astonishing day that bore more resemblance to a one-day international than a Test match, Afridi had ensured that the cauldron of the Iqbal Stadium was bubbling over with unconfined glee.
Given the circumstances of the series, today would have been an opportune moment for Michael Vaughan to end an unfortunate run of form with the coin against Pakistan. Duncan Fletcher reckoned afterwards he had now lost seven out of eight tosses in all internationals against them, but this wrong call was arguably his costliest since the New Year Test against South Africa last winter. On that occasion, England were still frazzled from their gallant failure to force a victory at Durban, and were duly stultified by Jacques Kallis's bloodless assassination.
If that was death by boredom, then England might be wishing they could endure some more of it. Today, all the conditions were loaded in the batsmen's favour, and after a hiccup in the morning session, Pakistan resolved that they would not be missing out. England's bowlers remained diligent from first ball to last, plugging away with clever field placements and unusual tricks of the trade - such as a spell of offcutters from Matthew Hoggard that drew Geraint Jones up to the stumps - but had it not been for two astounding catches from Andrew Flintoff in the covers and Ian Bell in his followthrough, their predicament could have been even worse.
Sadly for England, and their captain who gamely coaxed his knee back to fitness for this match, the only moment in the field that really mattered was the one that went astray. Only yesterday Vaughan was joking with the media about his butter-fingered tendencies. Today, the smile was wiped from his face as Afridi smeared a slower ball from Hoggard straight into his midriff and out again.
Vaughan was in more or less the same position that Kevin Pietersen had been occupying when he spilled his infamous chance off Michael Clarke at Lord's last summer. And then, as now, the upshot was a bout of intense pyrotechnics. "It's unfortunate, but now and again a catch will go down," said Duncan Fletcher afterwards, as he attempted to put a brave face on a difficult day. But there was no escaping the significance of Vaughan's slip. At 245 for 5, England would have been a new-ball burst away from exposing the Pakistani tail. At 300 for 4, on the other hand, with Afridi going like the clappers, the more likely scenario was that the new ball itself would burst.
England have extricated themselves from deeper troughs than this in their recent history, and given the placidity of the wicket, any score less than 400 would remain beatable. But for England the problems are not just confined to the here and now. Already there are some deep and threatening footmarks brewing up on a perfect length for Danish Kaneria, while England's own spin weapon, Ashley Giles, has seemed off the pace all series.
Today Giles was carted for four sixes in his first eight overs - and that was before Afridi had even put his whites on. Given the murmurings about the hip condition that may force him to miss the one-day series, Giles's inability to hold up an end is a concern for England. "The ball's hardly spun, even Shane [sic] Udal has struggled to spin it," added Fletcher afterwards. It is debatable whether Kaneria will find the same problems.
Pakistan's day featured three distinct sessions. Carelessness was the watchword before lunch as three prime wickets were surrendered; consolation came thereafter as Mohammad Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq reminded their team-mates of the mountain of runs on offer; and then Afridi appeared, and chaos ensued. England remained solid and professional throughout, but in front of the most partisan crowd of the tour, they were very much the bystanders in a Pakistan-led procession.
What's wrong with their cricket? Well, what isn't?