Cricket / Fifth Test: Pakistan fear their fragility: Tourists more at home at The Oval than England but their brittle temperament may be their undoing

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DESPITE the suspicion that this series should have been refereed by Jersey Joe Walcott rather than Clyde Walcott, the cricket has been nothing if not compelling, and with the bell about to sound for the final round this morning, the two contestants are level on points.

One-one with one to play is a better position for England than seemed likely a few weeks ago, but although they beat the West Indies here to square the 1991 series, The Oval is just about the last venue you would expect England to feel at home.

Harry Brind's strip of bleached, white marble is from a different planet to Headingley's slow, low, seamer, and on the horses-for- courses principle, England are attempting to win the Derby having been bred for the 3.15 at Sedgefield. A quick, even surface is made for Pakistan's batsmen, most of whom are eye players, with wrists like revolving doors, and never happier than when whipping off- stump deliveries through midwicket with the minimum of risk.

Furthermore, the sight of England's batsman arriving with chest protectors rather than ankle guards ought to add a yard or two to Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. Neither do England's bowlers have the same ability to render a good batting surface irrelevant by hitting the base of the leg stump with a ball that has spent two thirds of its journey threatening the off stump.

However, there is more to cricket at this level than natural flair, and, as in matchplay golf, the bloke who plods round in par will often beat the birdie-machine who has a tendency to make occasional visits to the car park. To further the analogy, Pakistan's temperament is sufficiently fragile for them to arrive at the 18th without an unsnapped club left in the bag.

If Pakistan are still feeling aggrieved over the umpiring in the previous two Test matches, they will not represent the fearsome foe they undoubtedly are when their minds are uncluttered by dark thoughts of bias and victimisation.

In pursuance of their holy grail of neutral umpires, they have allowed themselves to become unhinged by the number of decisions that have gone against them. The run-out adjudication in favour of Graham Gooch at Headingley, when the replays revealed a good deal of daylight between bat and broken stumps, will only have fuelled their suspicions of a raw deal, although it is worth pointing out that any team in the world can have 99 appeals turned down if they have a policy of making 100 per day.

Whether the International Cricket Council eventually finds the money to make this the last home series umpired by English officials we do not know, but if an article penned in the aftermath of Old Trafford, by Pakistan's former captain, Imran Khan, is anything to go by, this Test match should be played with a relative lack of incident.

The sort of behaviour that makes you wonder whether rabies might already have crossed the Channel does not, according to Imran, take place when Dickie Bird is in charge, as he is here. Bird, he says, is a man of integrity, which by inference suggests that in Imran's view not every umpire in the world is an honest one.

One would feel happier about England's prospects of winning their first single-tourist series at home since 1985 if they had made room for a second spinner, and they have also managed to get themselves into a rare old tangle over the wicketkeeping position.

It would be a considerable surprise if Alec Stewart was anything other than miffed about having to combine two jobs, and in an effort to remove the musical chairs element about his batting position at Headingley, he has asked to open the innings with Gooch this time.

Knowing Alec, he has probably not asked the old man for a favour since his last pocket-money rise, but Stewart senior, who presides over his final Test match as team manager, has acceded (along with Gooch) to the request. The last time Pakistan batted first on this ground they made 708, so Stewart stands a good chance of becoming the most knackered opening batsman in Test history.

By way of an equaliser, Pakistan's selectors are apparently ready to replace Inzamam-ul-Haq with Shoaib Mohammad. Shoaib's defensive technique would have been ideal at Headingley, while Inzamam's dashing strokeplay is ideally suited to this particular surface.

England (from): * G A Gooch, A J Stewart, M A Atherton, D I Gower, R A Smith, M R Ramprakash, C C Lewis, N A Mallender, P C R Tufnell, D E Malcolm, T A Munton, D R Pringle.

Pakistan (from): Ramiz Raja, Aamir Sohail, Shoaib Mohammad, * Javed Miandad, Salim Malik, Asif Mujtaba, Wasim Akram, Moin Khan, Mushtaq Ahmed, Waqar Younis, Aqib Javed, Naved Anjum, Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Umpires: H D Bird and D R Shepherd.

(Photograph omitted)