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Game on as Pakistan fight back

August 20, 2010

One of the most enjoyable experiences when following cricket is seeing a struggling player or team respond with a superb innings or session. Today the Oval test ticked that box on two accounts: for England’s under-fire opener Alastair Cook, a much needed second-innings century; for Salman Butt’s beleagured Pakistan, a stunning passage of post-tea bowling to wrest back the initiative from the hosts.

Cooking on gas: England's opener is back - Getty/cricinfo

Butt berated his two motionless slip fielders after Cook aerially bisected them on 23, but it was a thankfully rare error – albeit a costly one as Cook went on to make 110. The fielding side were struggling at this point, as England took the lead with Cook and Trott looking comfortable. The visitors even brought opening bat Imran Farhat on to bowl some leisurely spin; the Test Match Special team noted Farhat’s likeness to a somewhat more successful exponent of the art, in his run-up at least: “Starts like Shane Warne…finishes like Shane Ritchie,” opined Phil Tufnell. Effectively 35-2 at lunch having cancelled out Pakistan’s first-innings lead of 75, the hosts moved on to lead by 119 with seven wickets remaining at tea, Cook having become Wahab Riaz’s sixth test victim on debut.

Then Mohammad Amir and Saeed Ajmal took over. Pietersen was set up by the spinner, several balls pitching harmlessly on leg before one enticed him to push forward. It span back towards leg and between bat and pad to leave England four down.

Next over Amir had Trott caught at gully and shortly afterwards removed Collingwood who chased – and top-edged – one well outside off. Ajmal returned to get rid of Morgan; Amir’s beautiful away-swinger moved late to deceive the in-form Prior, and England were in trouble, having scored 16 for 5 since tea. Ajmal then bowled Swann before the umpires took the teams off for bad light – England 146 ahead with one wicket left.

Amir celebrates during a superb spell of fast bowling - Getty/cricinfo

There is much to like about this Pakistan side: substitute keeper Zulquarnain Haider’s exuberance in scoring 88 under pressure in the second test; Ajmal’s cheeky grin after ensnaring another batsman; Riaz’s endearing reaction on coming out as day one’s nightwatchman having taken 5-63 on debut. After beating Australia it is good to see them making a game of the third test, and series. Their batting and fielding have frequently been woeful, but finally yesterday the top and middle order gave their magnificent bowling attack something to defend; and throughout this match the fielders have ensured any advantage would be pressed.

Particularly pleasing was Kamran Akmal’s contribution. Deservedly dropped after the first test after dropping everything that came his way, he came back in and has taken eight catches so far this match. The selectors will have a tough call should Haider be fit for next week.

Three days of entertaining cricket have left this match finely poised – though England have bowled Pakistan out for less than 100 twice already this series, their current lead should prove far from adequate if Azhar Ali, Mohammed Yousuf or indeed any two batsman have good innings. Yet their bowling attack is probably as good as Pakistan’s, and for the tourists chasing down a likely 150 is no foregone conclusion. If England nick it, they will have Cook to thank – he may have just saved his place on the plane to Australia. If Pakistan win tomorrow, they go to Lords on Thursday with a chance to level their second series in a row.

At the end of a day of gutsy responses, one thing needs answering: will England launch the game’s final fightback with a blistering morning’s bowling, or will Pakistan finish the job professionally and celebrate an assured – and welcome – victory?


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