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England's mettle to truly tested

A month ago, on this very ground, Alastair Cook faced up to the press on the final day of the Sri Lanka series and bemoaned the fact that - after two facile victories in the opening two Tests of the summer - rain had robbed his developing team of a timely test of their mettle. "It would have been good to put us under pressure," he had said. Well, he's going to get his wish on Sunday, and no mistake.

On an absorbing sunny Saturday, in front of a packed and rapt full house, Pakistan's second innings listed and creaked and, with Chris Woakes producing yet another display of outstanding attacking swing bowling, they came close to capsizing on more than one occasion.

And yet, by the close, Pakistan had ridden out the jitters and found sufficient resistance from their lower-middle order to put themselves in a position of undeniable dominance. With a lead of 281 already banked, and on a surface that is beginning to offer both turn and variable bounce, Pakistan know as well as England that - in the legspinner Yasir Shah, not to mention a potent trio of left-arm seamers - they have an attack that can wrap up a first victory at Lord's since 1996.

"I'd like to say we are just in front," said Mickey Arthur, Pakistan's coach. "It's very close, almost too close to call. I think we are in for a cracking day's cricket tomorrow, if we can sneak another 19-20 and get just over 300, it's going to be a very, very good Test match."

Moeen Ali, England's offspinning allrounder, didn't try to disagree with that sentiment. Having been bundled out for 272 on the second afternoon - with Yasir claiming figures of 6 for 72 in his first Test outside of Asia - he admitted that England's batsmen would need to formulate a better plan second-time around if they want to avoid being shown up for the second innings in a row.

"In the first innings, we didn't bat very well, so we want to put that right," Moeen said. "There's a lot of us who want to score some runs, but it's going to be tough. They are a very good bowling side and you saw in the first innings, they have a very good legspinner who's going to cause us trouble."

England's problems in the first innings stemmed largely from Yasir's control. With little in the way of big spin on offer, line and length - allied to natural variation and the odd ripper - were sufficient to destabilise an England middle order for whom the legend of Shane Warne is but a distant noise in the commentary box. In the ten years since his retirement, practical experience of such artistry has been thin on the ground, and it showed in the manner of all too many dismissals.

"The guys will come out with definite plans," said Moeen. "We've been preparing very well against legspinners but, in the first innings, we didn't play very well against him, and he got a lot of wickets, so he's going to be the biggest threat tomorrow.

"In the first innings we were caught in the crease a lot and didn't use our feet against him. But sometimes, when it's not spinning, it's a little bit harder because he bowls very accurately. In the next innings, we'll have to be good on our feet, whether back or forward, but the lack of bounce did us a little bit in the first innings. We are just going to have to play well. We've all got runs in the past so we are going to have to use that experience and play well against him."

On the evidence of Moeen's own bowling performance, a lack of bounce won't be the issue on a gently deteriorating Lord's surface. If Misbah-ul-Haq's suicidal mo(w) to deep midwicket was a clear case of batsman error, then the ball that did for an extraordinarily skittish Younis Khan clearly gripped before cannoning into his stumps off an inside edge.

Still, Moeen was happy to accept the offerings, particularly after a fallow first innings in which a far more focused Misbah had beaten him out of the attack with a volley of dead-eyed sweeps and reverse-sweeps.

"I actually felt like I bowled all right in the first innings, but Misbah … I just can't bowl at him at times," he said. "I try to do a holding job but it's very difficult, so I was very pleased to get him out today. But I'm happy with how I'm bowling at the moment. I felt like it came out just as well [in the first innings] but I just got smashed. That can happen."

The assistance for Moeen, second-time around, may have had as much to do with the rough outside off that Pakistan's trio of left-arm quicks had created, but the doubts, where Yasir is concerned, are already embedded in England's minds. Arthur didn't need much invitation to begin the probing on behalf of his team.

"I think we saw there was a little bit on offer," he said. "The one that got Younis gripped quite big. And it's a little bit up-and-down as well, there's variable bounce which is great, so hopefully it will assist Yasir in a big way."

The wider concern for England is that Pakistan's team are far from a one-trick outfit. In fact, as Yasir himself admitted after the first innings, his own success had only arisen because he had set himself to do a holding roll for his seamers. But on that occasion, amid the emotion of Mohammad Amir's return to the fray, their lines and their disciplines went fractionally awry, and Arthur was adamant they'd be better for having got all that out of their systems.

Amir, he claimed, had been so nervous before his opening spell that he could barely grip the ball. But, he added, "he hit his areas more often than not and did a job at good pace. Hopefully he can take that into tomorrow. Everything that's gone has gone now, he's back out on the field, raring to go tomorrow, and hopefully he can bowl us to victory."

However, England's task could and perhaps should be significantly less daunting than it already is. On a day when Woakes' penetration kept them in the contest, Steven Finn produced his best spell of a difficult match, only to see two catches in three overs go down. The second, by Jonny Bairstow off Sarfraz Ahmed, was especially culpable, and Moeen admitted that England's standards had not been high enough of late.

"We spoke about it," he said. "We haven't been catching very well this summer, and we are going to have to get better. Going back to the Ashes [in 2015], the reason we won it was some brilliant catches. We held on to everything so we know we can field better. Hopefully we can go bang, bang tomorrow and keep them less than 300-310. It's still going to be tough, but we've got players hopefully who can knock them off."

Pakistan, however, have a legspinner who can knock England off in return, and Moeen knows that he stands squarely in their way.

"Pakistan spinners are always very attacking and tactically very good," said Moeen. "Yasir is always attacking the stumps so, as a batter, you feel like you've got to play, but he does bowl bad balls as well. He's a human being at the end of the day. He can have a bad day as well."