Cricket: England forced to defend from the trench

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The Independent Online
Pakistan 505-9 dec

England 72-2

ENGLAND'S objective is easy to comprehend, rather less so to execute. Over the next two days they have to reach a first-innings total of 306, draw the third Cornhill Test here, and then go on to win at Headingley and the Oval. A ball from Waqar Younis is more likely to fly than such a pig, but that is what England have to try and do.

Whether they can hold out in this match will depend a good deal on what goes on beneath the Old Trafford covers this weekend. Normally what goes on beneath the covers should be of little public interest; but in this instance England will be interested in whether it sweats under the balloon, 'greens up' and makes the ball seam. If Peter Marron's pitch is 'marron-ated' in moisture, England's lot will be the harder.

For all pace bowlers yesterday, after Friday night's sweating, conditions were infinitely more attractive. England's responded by being considerably straighter and better than they had been on the opening day, taking six more wickets for the addition of 117 runs, before Pakistan's declaration at three o'clock. But then, between numerous stoppages which kept them fresh, Waqar and Wasim Akram were a ferocious handful demanding rare courage from England's batsmen in fading light.

In his first eight overs, from the Warwick Road end, Wasim had Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart dropped in the slips, then Stewart and Mike Atherton caught. Apart from the Auckland Test, it was the first time that Stewart had failed to reach 50 since his England career took off at the end of last summer.

Wasim slanted another ball across Atherton to have him caught behind. Waqar hit Stewart on the right thumb and added a verbal barrage; Wasim hit Gooch on the right forearm. Perhaps disturbed by that blow, which required the physiotherapist's attention, Gooch had a flash at Aqib Javed, in his only over, and was dropped by Salim Malik at first slip, the simplest of the three misses. At this rate, the last 234 runs to save the follow-on are going to involve England in some considerable grafting and palpitation.

Any eulogy of England's bowling yesterday has to be tempered by the fact that Gooch was far and away their best bowler, as he had been on Thursday. He bowled outswingers to the right-handers, even bigger inswingers to the left- handers, and finished with three wickets in a Test innings for the first time.

Devon Malcolm found his rhythm as yesterday progressed. Tim Munton was far more like it, too: he had to bowl from the Stretford end, which meant that the stiff, cold cross-wind discouraged his outswing. Yet he still swung the ball both ways, and bowled a terrific over following the stimulus of his first Test wicket, when Javed Miandad edged his back-foot force to second slip.

Pakistan were virtually compelled to keep batting as the light was so poor: if they had declared early on, and got England in, any offer to go off for bad light would have been immediately accepted. Miandad added 29 off his own bat in three-quarters of an hour, but everybody else found it a struggle. That only made Aamir Sohail's double-century on the opening day, when the going was so very easy, an even more brilliant piece of opportunism.

If England's bowlers perked up, the wicketkeeping did not. Jack Russell made his eighth Test stumping when Gooch swung a ball across the face of Wasim's bat, and the old vibrancy briefly returned. But otherwise he performed as if knowing that the axe is about to fall, and perhaps it should for the next two Tests. He has not been his usual self for Gloucestershire of late, and he let a ball through for four byes which might have swung a little and late but which he was able to watch all the way.

If a specialist wicketkeeper is required for Headingley, Colin Metson is so accomplished as to be deserving of a chance. But it must be probable that last year's Oval scenario will be repeated: in other words England will pick six batsmen, including Stewart as keeper, four seam bowlers and a spinner. A desperate measure, but England have to win somewhere if they are to avoid their fourth successive 1-0 defeat by Pakistan.

Inexperienced bowlers almost invariably bowl a foot or two too short at wicketkeepers, making no allowance for their lack of inches, and the case of Moin Khan was not exceptional. Malcolm had satisfaction in the end though, after Moin had extended his nightwatching until noon, when Pakistan's keeper mis-hooked to square-leg.

Salim and Inzamam put on 60 together at a sprightly rate off 17 overs, yet it seemed staid, attritional fare by comparison with the previous glitter. Inzamam answered a question or two about his approach to the short ball by swaying out of the way or else, when a straight one finally arrived, by going on tiptoe and playing it down. The tall batsmen in Test cricket have all had a hard time against the short ball - Graeme Hick, Tom Moody, Trevor Franklin - but Inzamam yesterday suggested that he might be able to weather it.

England's captain then out- foxed his Essex team-mate of last season. Salim had received a load of outswingers, when suddenly Gooch introduced an inswinger and Salim chopped it on. Finally Mushtaq had a swipe and Chris Lewis took the catch running back from point.

The basic point remains, however, that England's bowling was bankrupt on the opening day, when faced with a dry and grassless pitch. There was no pace, and no swing, either by reversing the shine or by soaking one side with sweat. In the absence of such devices, the least that England could have expected was accuracy, but even this attribute was wanting.

Playing on uncovered pitches is not going to get English bowlers to move the ball around when they find conditions like here. Playing on virtually uncovered pitches - the over-watered ones of the mid- to-late 1980s - is not a solution either. Opponents of four-day county cricket might not like it, but only by bowling day in and day out on dry and grassless turf will English bowlers become effective in the conditions which obtain in most Test matches.

(Photograph omitted)