Getting it right when it matters

"It'll be alright on the night" has been England's mantra since the day this tour began. In victory or defeat, Ashes hangovers are the trickiest of all to shake off, and at Rawalpindi and Lahore, the side were visibly struggling to regain their intensity of focus. Today, however, they were true to their professionalism, and in a grafting, glamour-free toil through 88 overs of Multan's dust and haze, England sweated out those very last remnants of Ashes champagne. There'll be some fresh lime juice on ice in the dressing-room tonight.

Culture shock was cited as the single biggest obstacle to English success in Asia, both on and off the field. While they have conducted themselves with aplomb in their diplomatic engagements of this tour, there was nevertheless some concern as to how they'd adapt to Pakistan's sluggish Test tempo - a tempo that has resulted in 17 draws in 21 encounters with England. Five years ago, Nasser Hussain grafted and clawed, and stole the series in its very last breath. Today, England promised self-expression and the strut of heavyweight champions. Something, one sensed, was going to have to give.

And at 80 for 0 in the 26th over, with Pakistan's tyro openers capitalising on a wonderful toss to win, pride was the only thing that could come between England and a fall. It was just as Duncan Fletcher had envisaged - for success in these conditions, his team needed self-confidence without over-confidence. An absence of ego was the fundamental requirement.

Fortunately, this England team are renowned for being a grounded lot, and though there were some long and troubled faces as the first session dragged on, they took their licks and stuck to their guns, adapting - just as Darren Gough had done on this tour five years earlier - to the inhospitable circumstances in which they had landed.

The manner in which the wickets were shared across the attack epitomised the one-for-all mentality of this side. Andrew Flintoff was magnificent, reversing his way to two key scalps, including an expert yorker that was later emulated by his solemate Harmison. The lesson that both men had learnt was one that Waqar Younis might have hollered to them from the commentary box - if the pitch isn't going to help you, the best solution is to take it out of the equation entirely.

Matthew Hoggard gained late reward for an excellent, probing day's work with the worthy wicket of Kamran Akmal, but the most significant performer of the day was, without question, the man who might never have believed this day was going to come.

At 36, Shaun Udal is England's oldest Test debutant since John Childs in 1988. He has waited ten long years for a second international chance, since losing his way in the aftermath of the 1994-95 Ashes tour, and in that time, patience has become his watchword. So he was unfazed when his only highlight of the first session was a spectacular chase and diving stop on the mid-on boundary, and the nerves didn't even kick in when, in the 43rd over, his first delivery in Test cricket was spanked imperiously to the long-off boundary by Salman Butt.

The only man, in fact, who failed to fire was the one man who came into this series with a reputation for the conditions. Ashley Giles was off-colour today. He bowled a rash of full-tosses that forfeited any hope of him building up pressure, but ultimately that did not matter because of the ability of his team-mates to fill in the breach.

It was that trait that won England the Ashes - the certainty that, if one man failed, another would fire - and now Udal showed, like Giles himself on the 2000-01 tour, that veteran status can be acquired by osmosis if the situation is right. Bowling quicker than he would have done had the conditions been more favourable, he hurried and hassled the Pakistani batsmen, and though his maiden Test wicket came via a deflection off his captain's head, he would not have traded the moment for the world.

Talking of the captain, Marcus Trescothick emerged with great credit from his first day as a skipper overseas, keeping his discipline and ringing the changes, and enjoying that slice of good fortune that all the best leaders need. The most fundamental thing that went right for him, however, was that his players did their bit without prompting, on a hugely encouraging first foray of the series. Denis Norden, it seems, was right all along.