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November 23, 2005
Has there ever been a more thrilling Test team than England? There have been better ones, for sure, but as Jacques Kallis so admirably demonstrates every time he touches the batting crease, bloodless brilliance is not the same as maverick genius. It is men like Brian Lara who draw the crowds and capture the imagination, because they are prepared to fail in order to succeed. England - in victory, defeat or nail-shredding draw - are surely among the most entertaining entities to grace Test cricket. Whatever happens tomorrow, I'd be astounded if it's boring.
The first signs that something was afoot came during England's gleeful run-spree in the morning session. Shaun Udal and Steve Harmison batted with such chutzpah and style that all of a sudden a dicey first-innings deficit had become a 16-run irrelevance. From that moment on, Pakistan were like a marathon front-runner being tracked by a hungry opponent. Though the line is in sight, how best should they reach it? They tried a range of options today - patience from the openers and pugnacity from the middle-order - but England kept reeling in those yards regardless.
No prizes for guessing who was at the heart of England's efforts. Andrew Flintoff is a talisman like few others. Your average genie grants just three wishes, but Flintoff keeps on providing, rub after rub after rub. Today his two-wicket burst bore comparison with a similarly totemic over at Edgbaston last summer. Then as now, England needed inspiration as their prospects were beginning to drift, and on both occasions the response was an unanswerable ramraid from Flintoff, straight through the heart of the opposition batting.
For Justin Langer and Ricky Ponting, read Mohammad Yousuf and Shahid Afridi - England's bete noire in so many ways in this match. The Pakistan fans couldn't bear to watch after Afridi was out - they flooded towards the exits, just as England flooded back into contention. And the Edgbaston parallel extended to Flintoff's support act as well, with Harmison bagging Kamran Akmal in the final over of the day, just as he had done to Michael Clarke in the summer.
Harmison, in fact, epitomises England's attitude like few others. He's the least egocentric fast bowler in existence, and has had absolutely no qualms about surrendering his new-ball berth to his bosom-buddy, Flintoff. It was thought before the tour that Pakistan's pitches - and the claustrophobia tour lifestyle - would crush him, but instead he has rumbled in with optimistic menace, demonstrating that a good heart can overcome all sorts of obstacles. And let's not forget his reverse-sweeping either.
As Flintoff admitted afterwards, England have no option but to go for broke tomorrow. "Out here the cricket is so tough," he said, "that any opportunity to win the game you've got to go for it." But, he added, England couldn't get ahead of themselves. Their Multan catastrophe has left them playing catch-up, but it has left them wiser for the experience as well.
In fact, England's approach to this match has echoed the gritty grind'em-down formula that Nasser Hussain advocated in 2000-01, with one or two embellishments to fit the modern tempo, of course. A chastised England have clung on with rare tenacity, and if they achieve their aim tomorrow, it will surely have to be in a manner that bears comparison with their famous heist in the gloom at Karachi.
So far the game is following the script, with England batting second and chivvying their way to within 16 runs of Pakistan's imposing first innings (17 was the deficit back then). Tomorrow, who knows? But under Michael Vaughan's leadership, England have never yet failed to bounce back from defeat with a famous victory. They'll be tracking Pakistan every inch of the way.