Cricket: Knight implements flawed England plan to perfection

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Pakistan 448 England 501

Two poor days with two good ones to follow are not normally the way to win Test matches, despite England topping the 500 mark on a day interrupted and finally curtailed by rain. However, few could have predicted the bold style and character of their response with the bat, particularly against a side who had not only humiliated them at Lord's, but had made a monkey of their carefully laid bowling plans of a quick riposte here.

But cricket, perhaps more than any sport, allows its participants both the time and space to construct and rebuild careers: options gratefully taken up by Nick Knight and Alec Stewart, England's twin centurions in this match. But if the portents are undeniably good, they are also tinged with irony, with Stewart, a marginal figure until the last Test at Lord's, replacing Knight at the head of the order.

The selectors had felt that Knight's left-handedness could act as a foil to the late in-swing of Waqar Younis - the opposition's most penetrative bowler - which is at its most lethal in the middle of an innings, when the ball has had time to roughen.

But if the selectors deserve credit for their masterplan, Knight deserves even more for implementing it to perfection. Batting out of position is never easy, less so at this level, where the insecurity of moving down the order gnaws at confidence like a wharf rat at grain-filled sacks.

With that in his mind, Knight, 26 and in only his fifth Test, responded in the most emphatic and unambiguous way possible. A response which Graham Gooch, his former captain at Essex would have wholeheartedly approved of, despite the batsman's unexpected move from Essex to Warwickshire two seasons ago.

At the time, there was much acrimony, as Essex accused Knight - a product of the county's Felsted School - of selfishness and greed. However, it has undoubtedly been the making of him, allowing him to emerge from the penumbra of Gooch's substantial shadow and into the breezier dressing- room climate of Warwickshire's young upbeat side. A side whose infectious confidence has allowed him to prosper.

It was that confidence that shone through yesterday and he was a batsman transformed from the largely strokeless nudger seen during two Tests against the West Indies last year. With England still well in arrears, he forced Pakistan to go ball following and at one stage Mushtaq had three men protecting the leg-side boundary against Knight's improvised cow shots and sweeps.

His dominance, despite Russell's crabbed resistance at the other end, forced Wasim Akram into taking the new ball. An almost unprecedented undertaking since the visitor's discovery and use of reverse swing.

Swing that has only fleetingly been glimpsed here, a lush and damp Headingley outfield prolonging the ball's condition and thus its reticence to swing in reverse. The net effect on a surface with some slow even bounce is that bowling giants have become mere mortals again: a transformation England will do well to remind themselves of when they find themselves batting to level the series in 10 days time.

Even so, the new ball immediately accounted for Russell, who, trying to parry some awkward bounce from Akram, merely succeeded in knocking the ball back on to his stumps off an inside-edge. With only two of the top six failing (Atherton and Thorpe) Russell will find his position under threat for The Oval should England feel the need to play five bowlers. If not, the selectors will have the almost impossible and inhumane task of axing someone in the runs.

Undeterred by the dismissal, Knight launched into Ata-ur-Rehman, driving him past cover and pulling him in front of square on the leg-side. With 21 coming from three overs, the fast bowler was quickly replaced by Mushtaq, who accounted for Chris Lewis, when an attempt to pad away the googly caused the ball to richochet onto the stumps.

Dominic Cork then arrived in time to share in Knight's jig of joy at reaching his hundred, a moment Raymond Illingworth greeted with expansive applause. However, he will not have been happy with Knight's dismissal, airily driving Waqar to mid-off. England may have saved this Test by bold batting, but their bowlers have still to look dangerous. Today is their chance to make an impact.