Clouds gather over England

Third Test: Saeed tightens Pakistan's control as coach's first summer heads towards a gloomy conclusion
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The Independent Online
The weather may yet enable England to limit Pakistan to only a 1-0 victory in their three-Test Cornhill series after events were severely curtailed by rain yesterday, but that will come as small consolation at the end of a season that was surely supposed to mark greater all-round improvement than they have ultimately been able to show.

With two days to go, Pakistan lead England by 13 runs with six first- innings wickets still standing, a position from which they would normally expect to force a victory against better teams than the one they are up against here. But a draw is all they require, and as long as the Oval remains subject to the sort of downpours that reduced play on the third day to only 38 overs instead of the scheduled 90, a draw is what we are likely to get.

In a full morning session, Pakistan added 89 to their overnight score of 229 for one for the loss of Ijaz Ahmed. A heavy shower during lunch delayed the start of play in the afternoon by 15 minutes, and in an eventful seven overs before the next lot of rain came, England surprised themselves by taking two wickets - one of them that of Saeed Anwar for his highest- ever Test score of 176.

A stoppage of two and three-quarter hours followed, and when the players came back on at quarter-past five there was time for only 10 balls to be bowled before they were forced off the field for what turned out to be the last time. Play was eventually abandoned just after six o'clock.

It was a disappointing day for everyone except the Pakistanis, although as far as England were concerned the metaphorical clouds were already hanging heavy over them after their abject performance with the ball on Friday. Once again Robert Croft rose above the rest with another display of tight, testing off spin, and Alan Mullally was his usual solid self, but in overall terms the message that came through was that England have a long way to go before they can expect to compete against the very best, and the main reason for that is a desperate shortage of top-quality fast bowlers.

England's plight here might have been eased had Andrew Caddick been included in the XI. The decision to deploy six batsmen and a five-man bowling attack that included two spinners was still a brave and imaginative one, but it needed executing far more skilfully than England managed. A total of 326 was probably not going to be enough even had the bowling been a lot better, and in Saeed, Pakistan had someone who is fast turning into one of the world's great batsmen.

Lloyd had said on Friday night that he would be re-stressing the importance of discipline and patience if Pakistan were to be knocked out of their stride. Croft, however, had been exempted of criticism, and once again he showed why as he and Mullally bowled through a first hour in which only 25 runs came from 16 overs and Pakistan lost their second wicket.

It was only Croft who made Saeed look even remotely discomfited. In the third over of the day he beat his forward push with a ball that turned so far it was taken by Graham Thorpe at slip. Four overs later Saeed was lucky not be bowled when he went to cut a ball from Croft that curved into him more than he had anticipated and passed between the bottom of his bat and the top of the off stump.

Mullally's somewhat effortful approach is not the most awe-inspiring sight in cricket, but opposition batsmen throughout the summer have regularly cited him as the England bowler who has caused them the most difficulty. Now it was Ijaz's turn to discover that there is more to him than meets the eye. Coming round the wicket, Mullally found the line and length to encourage him into a prod outside the off stump which gave Alec Stewart a straightforward catch at the wicket.

Sustained pressure was beyond England, however, and with the introduction of Ian Salisbury Pakistan began to open out. The leg-spinner's first over cost 11 runs, and just as he had provided Saeed with a juicy full toss with which to bring up his hundred on Friday so he did again to allow him to reach 150.

After three overs of Salisbury had gone for 20 runs, Atherton had no option but to take him off, but any hope that the man who replaced him, Chris Lewis, might tighten things up lasted no longer than it took for Lewis to begin yet another absurdly profligate spell with a ball which Saeed guided to the mid-wicket boundary.

Like Salisbury, Lewis too lasted only three overs, having conceded 27 runs to give him figures for the innings of 12-1-76-0. Add those to his Headingley match return of 48-7-152-1 and the bowler who returned so encouragingly to the fold so encouragingly at the start of the season could have done just enough to write himself out of England's winter plans.

Lloyd had clung to the belief that Pakistan were very "get out-able", and after moving unobtrusively to 35 Inzamam did the obliging thing and hooked Mullally straight down Nasser Hussain's throat at deep square leg. From 334 for three Pakistan went to 334 for four when, three balls later, Saeed too gave his wicket away, mis-timing a hook off Dominic Cork which plopped into Croft's hands at mid-on. He had just passed his previous best Test score of 169 with yet another exemplary four through the covers, and perhaps his ambition was satisfied.

Cork had been getting frustrated as only he can, shoving Saeed out of the way in an incident before lunch that reflected badly on him and brought him a rebuke from umpire Cooray. The match referee spoke to both players about the matter but decided to take it no further, and Cork apologised to Saeed.

It may be that Cork needs a rest, and his name can be expected to be absent from the squad for next week's Texaco Trophy series, to be announced today.

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