Pakistan v England, 2nd Test, Faisalabad, 3rd day November 22, 2005

Shoaib breaks the slumber in the stands



Shoaib cleans up Andrew Flintoff during his double-wicket spell © Getty Images
Siesta had enveloped the ground. Thankfully too, some said, after an immense second day. Pakistan had fumbled through the morning session, allowing Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen to laboriously inch England back into the match. The pitch was playing possum in reverse - it was dead although the footmarks suggested mischief. The crowd, the press box, the players, all gritted themselves for attrition.

During the eighth over after lunch, spectators in the Waqar Younis enclosure at fine leg stirred first; in front of them, Shoaib Akhtar took off his cap, ran his fingers through his hair, walked to the wicket to collect the ball and began his second spell of the day. In an instant, the stupor was broken.

Pietersen pulled at fresh air first ball, Shoaib oooh-ed, the crowd approved. As he walked back to an imaginary mark - there didn't seem to be one yet he walked back more or less to the same spot each time - he smiled, jostled the crowd, and ran in again, this time a touch more urgently. Thus began a properly raw period of cricket, as much a disruption to the grinding rhythm of the day as yesterday's blast had been.

Without exaggeration, nearly every delivery thereafter of a five-over spell, 29 legal and a couple otherwise, demanded attention. The new ball in his next over meant his run now became a naked, burly sprint, the noise around the ground rising in time with his acceleration.

Something, anything you felt, had to happen. Pietersen, attempting to silence the Hanif Mohammad enclosure at square leg pulled the first ball into them for six to bring up his hundred; the second, just as short was straighter, and he pulled to mid-on. Iqbal Stadium erupted. A yorker met Bell's deliberately angled grounded bat two balls later, so quick that it flew square for four. Uniquely, it was a victory both for bowler and batsman. A 12-run wicket over ended with Andrew Flintoff's pads feeling a 95 mph yorker and as Shoaib trudged back to fine leg, the day was breathing.

The peak was reached in his third over. In order, an appeal came first for caught behind off a short ball, a mistimed pull next that landed between bowler and mid-on, a low no-ball full toss and a good length ball which damaged Flintoff's bat. The bat change heralded a rare mid-over drinks break, allowing a mass of collective breath to be inhaled. Two minutes, a no-ball, one into the ribs, a change of pace and a slower ball later, Shoaib tore through; Flintoff, beaten for pace, length and nip, his middle stump tumbling out among the din.

Momentarily, cricket became a game of one end. At the other, Salman Butt grassed Bell off Rana and was hardly acknowledged. Here was Shoaib as he was originally conceived, taking wickets of players big enough to matter to him, joking with the captain, rousing the crowd, chirping at batsman, sending them off pantomime style, eyes honed only on him, at the centre of team celebrations, the stadium and all attention.

His other spells veered qualitatively only slightly either side of this one but whenever he was summoned, the ambience, the match seemed to summon itself. In the first hour he tore into both batsmen with bouncers, yorkers, slower balls and lip, including a conversation, with Pietersen, where the posturing would have done gangsters proud. Significantly, towards the end of the day, he maintained the verve, his speed and incision. For half a series now, a Shoaib transformed, a Shoaib engaged, a Shoaib who matters, a Shoaib now successful has turned up. His past warns us not to rush to early judgement but it also promises us that when he is like this, you cannot help but engross yourself into his very presence.

When he wasn't there, as when he jogged off at two for a breather after his five-over apogee, the game sank into slumber and a long day rolled along. It was made longer by a poor day in the field for Pakistan, one of the poorest in recent memory. Butt's drop was one of at least four that offered the opportunity of decisive advantage. There were, too, a couple more openings - shies at stumps, shots falling short, appeals being turned down - that suggested Pakistan could conceivably have finished off the series today. Pakistan's appealing too rubbed against them; at one stage after Shoaib had exited, clearly leaving a little electricity still spluttering for the game, Kaneria and Afridi managed seven appeals in 18 balls. Some were close, some weren't, but unsurprisingly given the uniform excessiveness of all, none were given.

Now, with England chipping away at a healthy total and Pakistan too chipping away at a determined tail, two days of muted anxiety beckon. It could peter out to a draw, or it could, like Multan, unfold on the last day. Today didn't reveal much in terms of control and result but 15 overs, in three different spells, revealed a man entirely in his element.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo