Pakistan v England, 2nd ODI, Lahore December 12, 2005

A wake-up call from revitalised Shoaib



Shoaib Akhtar celebrates yet another success © Getty Images

A high-profile awards bash and a 4 o'clock bedtime is hardly the ideal preparation for facing the fastest bowler in the world, as a bleary-eyed England discovered to their cost today. Though Shoaib Akhtar pretended not to know about the BBC Sports Personality of the Year presentations that had interrupted England's beauty sleep, he was on hand nonetheless to provide them with a rude awakening. Five wickets and one Man-of-the-Match award later, the series was tantalisingly tied at 1-1 with three to play.

On Saturday, England's top order gelled superbly to propel their total to an unassailable 327. Today, the exact opposite scenario materialised. Though they won the toss and chose once again to bat first, their matchwinners were scattered to the four winds, as Shoaib breezed in from the College End of the ground. Slower balls, bouncers and full swinging yorkers - each of his favourite tricks came good, and in emphatic fashion.

"I've been practising a lot on the slower ball," said Shoaib afterwards, and England can testify to that, after being teased and tormented by his subtle variations all tour. "The key is finding the right length, but it's been working for me at the right time, and today was one of those days when everything works well."

The delivery that did for Trescothick was so subtle that it barely brushed the off stump on its way past a befuddled defensive stroke. But Andrew Strauss and Geraint Jones were more conventional scalps - both detonated from the crease by fast bouncers that looped off the gloves to the keeper and slip respectively.

"I used the short-pitched ball as a surprise weapon," he added, before taking a well-aimed swipe at the ICC's regulation that limits him to one bouncer per over in one-day internationals. "I'm really going to stress out about it," he said. "There are so many restrictions on the bowlers already - you have a circle, and now it's a 20-over circle. We should be allowed two bouncers at least. But the ball carried through and there was good pace in the wicket. We should have had this sort of pitch for the Tests."

This was Shoaib's stage, and at 130 for 8 in the 31st over, he produced a command performance that meant the show ought to have been stopped well within the first act. That it was not stopped was due to two contrasting aspects of the game - one utterly commendable, and the other totally execrable.

Liam Plunkett's maiden one-day fifty came on the same day as the new darling of India, Irfan Pathan, produced a career-best 93, and was the richest positive that England could hope to have gleaned from a forgettable match. "We try and pick characters and hopefully we've picked another one here," said an admiring Marcus Trescothick afterwards. "A bowling allrounder is something that England have been crying out for. We've got Freddie as a genuine allrounder, but we also need guys at No. 8 and 9 as well."

Nevertheless, his performance would not have been possible had England not been forced to send out their Supersub, Vikram Solanki, to bat alongside him. In doing so, they bought a record-breaking 100-run stand for the ninth wicket, but sacrificed a seamer in James Anderson - and with it their realistic prospects of defending a meagre target.

"We were just trying to work out the whole situation," admitted Trescothick afterwards, as another layer of confusion was piled onto the unfathomable issue of Supersubs. In truth, England probably missed a trick in opting to retain Steve Harmison, the gnarled old pro, over Anderson, the young gun with a point to prove. He bowled well in the first match and in the cold, hazy conditions, he might have extracted an appreciable degree of swing.

Either way, it made no odds, for England's goose was already cooked - just as it had been at The Oval last summer, in fact, when Solanki's batting was again called upon in a crisis, and what remained of the bowling attack was subsequently hacked to pieces by Adam Gilchrist.

On Saturday, it was England's batting that fired on all cylinders, but today, Pakistan gained extra impetus from Shoaib's thrilling performance, and it was left to Kamran Akmal and Salman Butt to put the game beyond England's salvation. An 86-run stand in the first 15 overs was a launchpad that not even the BBC Sports Personality of the Year could upstage.

For Flintoff, it was not the perfect morning-after. His fourth-ball duck at least bought him an extra hour's kip in the dressing-room, and he responded with his sparkiest performance since the Faisalabad Test, as he took the new ball and burst through Butt's defences to make the first incision of the match. But Kamran stood firm, to record his second one-day century in just 32 matches.

It is remarkable to note the distance that Pakistan have come in the past 12 months. Since the retirement of Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, a burgeoning arsenal of young fast bowlers has started working its way through the ranks and, not entirely by coincidence, Shoaib has been stung into some of the best bowling of his career. And now too, Pakistan are in possession of one of the best young wicketkeeping prospects in the game.

The selectors stuck by Akmal during a torrid tour of Australia last winter, resisting the urge to turn back to those old sparring partners, Moin Khan and Rashid Latif. They earned their rewards when he produced his maiden ODI century against West Indies at Brisbane, and now, in the space of a fortnight, he has produced two more hundreds in contrasting situations on home soil.

"I am happy as an opener," he said modestly afterwards, "but I will bat wherever the management want me." For the moment, they'll be quite happy with him leading from the front with the bat, just as Shoaib is doing with the ball.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo