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December 1, 2005
This was a day dredged from the depths of disinterest. Pakistan batted and batted and battered England down, and England in turn switched off and mentally prepared to fly home. At some indefinable moment in the middle of the afternoon session, their last prospect of a series-levelling win evaporated. Impressive though Mohammad Yousuf and Kamran Akmal were, the lack of fight in England's performance was frightening.
It's been a long, long time since England last endured a day in the field quite this numbing. Even during the Ashes, when their batting capitulated in the first Test at Lord's, the fight never went out of the bowling attack. Had their catches stuck in that fateful second innings, England could have bundled Australia out for 220 or less. And then who knows where the match might have gone.
Today, however, the only opportunity that either batsman offered came when Akmal was missed on 95 by Marcus Trescothick, a tough diving chance that might have stuck if England had been on top. Even the nightwatchman, Shoaib Akhtar - a man occasionally given to a swift slogged 20 - was able to hang around for an 81-ball 38, his highest score in 39 Tests.
At the post-match press conference, Duncan Fletcher offered a range of excuses for the meltdown - mental fatigue from too many hours of incarceration in the Pearl Continental Hotel; a flat unresponsive wicket; the missed opportunities both at Multan and here in the first innings. Ultimately, however, England have been overwhelmed by their own lack of stickability. It was the batting that failed first, and now the bowling has followed suit.
It's hardly surprising, mind you. All year long, England have been carried by their pace attack. Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison and Matthew Hoggard (with Simon Jones in the summer) have been such a potent strikeforce that England's shortcomings with the bat have been largely overlooked. "We are looking for the best formula to take 20 wickets," was Michael Vaughan's catchphrase in the build-up to this match. He omitted to mention that a defendable total is an essential catalyst for any on-pitch chemistry.
England's last great thrust came yesterday evening, when Harmison bowled one of those wonderful luckless spells for which he is becoming so renowned. His clattering of Inzamam-ul-Haq had the makings of a matchturning moment, but such was the listlessness that England showed upon their resumption, that Inzy wasn't even called upon today to test his damaged wrist.
One man more than any other epitomises England's fading belief. Flintoff had been magnificent in the first two matches, bowling with strength, stamina, accuracy and skill to push Pakistan all the way to the brink in each of their four innings, and on his watch, only one wicket out of 40 eluded England's pack of bowlers in the first two Tests. Flintoff today, however, was a man racked with doubt. According to Imran Khan, speed through the air is the weapon that bags wickets on the subcontinent, as Flintoff amply demonstrated - at Multan especially - with his wonderful use of the yorker.
In this match, however, his only length has been short and shorter - banging the ball in halfway to reduce the runs and, with them, his own effectiveness. His final figures today were 29-8-66-0, which echoed almost exactly the 34-11-80-0 he produced four years ago at Chandigarh, when Nasser Hussain ruled England's roost with a rod of iron.
Angus Fraser went so far as to describe that performance as the best nought-for he had ever witnessed, but the Flintoff of 2001-02 was a far more limited operator than he is today. His line and length was an admission of England's shortcomings in this match, although it is instructive that Troy Cooley, England's bowling guru, is missing from this match.
The best that England can now hope for is a battling draw and a 1-0 series defeat, which is hardly the launchpad for world domination that they would have envisaged after their successes in the Ashes. In hindsight, it also confers on Hussain an extra dose of kudos for the manner in which he cajoled a far less competent side than this to back-to-back series wins in both Pakistan and Sri Lanka in the winter of 2000-01.
Discipline and tenacity were the watchwords that he advocated, and in both cases his hang-in-there-at-all-costs mentality bore the ripest of fruits. Now, two years apart but in no less dispiriting a fashion, both the Sri Lanka and Pakistan crowns have been wrested back from England's grasp. They are a side of which great things are expected, but this tour is proving to be a harsh and timely reminder that you are only as good as your last performance.