Cricket / Third Test: Hard landing awaits Gower in dogfight - England's most charismatic batsman returns to find Pakistan's Wasim and Waqar threatening his attempt to make history

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The Independent Online
THE return of Wing Commander Gower, OBE, DFC and bar (champagne bar, hopefully, to celebrate the eclipse of Geoffrey Boycott's record) is even more apposite now that England's batsmen are beginning to associate the pavilion bell with an air-raid siren. When the order to scramble goes out, Gower will be there with his helmet, not to mention silk scarf and goggles.

Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis are currently firing serious bullets and before this summer is out may well be bracketed with the likes of Roberts and Holding and Lillee and Thomson. Apart from Wasim and Waqar, Aqib Javed is a much underrated purveyor of brisk, away swing, and only Alec Stewart has so far played Mushtaq Ahmed with any degree of comfort.

Gower, who becomes the first Englishman to play 200 Test innings, requires 34 runs to replace Boycott as his country's most prolific Test batsman, and he certainly has the right credentials to help England out of a hole. Like all class players, Gower plays the ball late, although such has been the media attention on him this week, you wonder whether he might miss a straight one through flash-gun blindness.

The way Gower plays, he could still be 34 runs short by Tuesday night, or else knock off the record in his first nine scoring shots. The last time Graham Gooch batted with him was in Adelaide, when Gower was out, last ball before lunch, to a trap that could not have been more obvious had the legside fielders been linked together in a circle holding a fireman's blanket. That was the aerial transgression that did for Gower, not his infamous Tiger Moth flight over the pitch at Carrara during a match against Queensland.

Gower's body language will never be completely right for this regime, but even if he gives off his customary appearance of trying hard (trying hard to stifle a yawn, that is) he will not be short of nerves here. The thought that his Test career might have gone for good has focused Gower's mind as never before this summer, and he wants the job for another two years, not another two Tests.

He said yesterday that he was hoping to score 100 rather than 34, and that he and Gooch are mates again. 'We had the two-minute chat we needed to completely clear the air, and we are now back to the relationship we had before.'

Gower's charismatic presence, plus the exhilarating game at Lord's, have improved what had been sluggish advance ticket sales for this Test, although there are still plenty left for the first three days, and there is little doubt that a combination of the recent bad weather and what Bob Bennett, the Lancashire chairman, described as the 'Edgbaston factor' has had an adverse effect at the box office. Quite right too. If the Test and County Cricket Board could not see that no refunds for two balls play represented an abject piece of PR, perhaps a few thousand empty seats here will do the trick.

England will be uncomfortably aware that their defeat at Lord's has made this series desperately hard to win. Once Pakistan's morale is up, they are fiendishly difficult opposition, and they have one of the best balanced attacks Test cricket has seen for many years.

Against most bowling sides, it is a question of see off the new ball, and then cash in. Against Pakistan, it is a question of get stuck into the new ball, and then watch out. The older it is, the more Wasim and Waqar make it swerve and in some respects No 1 would almost be a safer option for Graeme Hick than No 6.

Hick's Test match record is such that Zimbabwe might now be thinking they had a lucky escape, but while England are sticking with him - through thin and thin - their patience cannot be inexhaustible, and he badly needs a good performance here.

The problem now is that while England remain convinced he can play, Hick may not totally share their confidence. Hick's trademark used to be in arriving at the crease almost before the previous batsman had left it, but in the second innings at Lord's, it was the longest wait for an entrance at HQ since David Steele went down a flight of stairs too many and got lost in the gents.

Gooch admitted yesterday that 'Graeme has struggled a bit at No 3, and there may be a bit less pressure at No 6.' The No 3 place will go to Michael Atherton, while Stewart remains as Gooch's opening partner. There is, however, a strong case from swapping them around, and the irony is that Stewart bats at No 3 for Surrey, while Atherton opens for Lancashire.

England will decide this morning between Derek Pringle and Tim Munton, and although Pakistan have one or two niggling injuries, the only danger to their fielding an unchanged side is if Waqar and Wasim have expired during the night from over-excitement. The Old Trafford pitch looks hard enough to break the end off a pneumatic drill, and Wasim, having just signed a four-year contract with Lancashire, did not so much peer at it as purr at it yesterday. 'This,' he said, 'will be fun.'

ENGLAND (from): G A Gooch (capt), A J Stewart, M A Atherton, R A Smith, D I Gower, G A Hick, C C Lewis, R C Russell (wkt), D R Pringle, I D K Salisbury, D E Malcolm, T A Munton.

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

Umpires: D R Shepherd, R Palmer.

(Photograph omitted)