Umar Gul produced a sensational career-best spell of 6 for 42 in ten full-length and late-swinging overs, as Pakistan's cricketers overcame their recent troubles to secure an emotionally charged victory under the floodlights at The Oval. In front of a packed house who lived every moment of another tense finale, Gul built on the new-ball efforts of Shoaib Akhtar and Abdul Razzaq to defend a below-par total of 241, and keep the series alive at 2-1 down with two matches to come at Lord's and the Rose Bowl later this week.
During the mid-innings interval, Pakistan's total had appeared insubstantial, after a piecemeal performance in which Fawad Alam top-scored with a diligent 64, but no single partnership had been able to take a grip of the contest. England's response with the bat, however, lacked the authority they had displayed in the first two contests, and with Gul in the sort of form that forged his reputation as a limited-overs master, they failed to close out a contest that, in terms of pure run-rate, had been within their grasp throughout.
Three of England's batsmen made their mark with significant performances - Andrew Strauss continued his fine form with a 54-ball 57, Eoin Morgan showed typical authority in the middle of the innings with 61 from 74, while Luke Wright overcame a massive stroke of good fortune on 26 to finish on 48 not out - but with the exception of the opener Steven Davies, who made 18, no-one else reached double-figures as Pakistan mounted a vigorous defence on a chilly and intense evening's work. The coup de grace was delivered by Razzaq, who bowled James Anderson for 3 to secure their second victory in consecutive visits to The Oval this summer, following their four-wicket win in the third Test last month.
It was a double-dip recession of an innings from England. Though Strauss batted with his now-habitual fluency to push the score along at more than five runs an over, by the time he was bowled off the inside-edge to become the first of Gul's six victims, the rest of the top-four had already fallen cheaply.
Davies was bowled through the gate by Razzaq before Jonathan Trott, needing five runs to pass 1000 in all internationals this summer, was exquisitely yorked by Shoaib for 2, whereupon Ravi Bopara - in another unconvincing foray - snicked a thin edge off Saeed Ajmal to fall for 7 from 15 balls. One over later, and Michael Yardy - whose third-ball reprieve by Kamran Akmal ultimately forced the keeper to leave the field with a broken finger - was trapped lbw by a bamboozling late swinger from Gul, to leave England teetering on 103 for 5.
Cue more magnificence from Morgan, as he and Luke Wright reinflated the innings with a run-a-ball partnership of 98 in 17.2 overs. In similar circumstances to those that he had faced against Australia at the Rose Bowl back in June, he picked the gaps with outrageous ambidextrous improvisation that he somehow made to look run-of-the-mill, while Wright - back in the side following an illness to Paul Collingwood - provided sensible support of the more conventional biff-and-block variety. Wright, however, should have fallen on 26, when Umar Akmal, the substitute keeper, whipped off the bails with his back foot clearly in the air. But umpire Doctrove - he of the 2006 Oval controversy - somehow decided that a replay wasn't necessary.
The pivotal moment of the match, however, came in the 39th over, with England seemingly cruising to their series victory on 201 for 5, with 41 still needed from 72 deliveries. So long as Morgan remained, the result was a foregone conclusion, but when Gul strayed onto his pads, he rashly leant into an airy clip over midwicket, and picked out the substitute Wahab Riaz at deep square leg. Three balls later, Tim Bresnan's off stump was extracted for a duck, and though Stuart Broad was a handy man to have at No. 9, he could do nothing about a raucous delivery that crashed into middle. And when Graeme Swann slapped the last delivery of Gul's spell to cover, England had shed four wickets for 10 runs in five overs. And from there, there was no recovery.
It was the culmination of an impressive recovery from Pakistan, after their own innings had flirted with disaster right at the start of the day. After being asked to bowl first on a bright but chilly day, Anderson was the star of England's show with an eye-opening display of attacking seam bowling - as opposed to the swing-based method that has earned him his rewards to date this summer. He claimed 3 for 26 in ten exemplary overs, to spearhead a bowling effort that never allowed a free-spirited batting order to flourish.
Anderson took little time to prove a menace on a pitch with decent bounce, as he snagged Mohammad Hafeez's outside edge with the final ball of his opening over, before Bresnan bowled Kamran Akmal for 5, via an unlucky deflection off his thigh pad. At 8 for 2 after 2.4 overs, Pakistan's performance was heading down the pan, and their situation got worse at 31 for 3 when Anderson nailed Mohammad Yousuf with a nip-backer that replays showed would have trimmed the top of the bails.
Fawad and Asad Shafiq did their best to regroup in uncomfortable circumstances, before Shafiq holed out against Swann to leave his team on 95 for 4, and their prospects dipped even further five overs later when Umar Akmal - not a batsman who will ever die wondering - tried to hook Bresnan off his eyebrows as he charged down the wicket, but managed only a top-edge to Swann at fine leg. Afridi showed signs of a return to form before running himself out as he deflected a shy from square leg onto his own stumps for 34, and Razzaq chipped in with a lusty 31 to give the innings some late impetus. But without Gul's efforts, victory could never have been achieved.