The England selectors yesterday showed their faith in Monty Panesar when they assured him of his place in this morning's second Test against Pakistan. The appearance of Jamie Dalrymple at Old Trafford suggested that England were contemplating playing the off-spinning all-rounder ahead of a specialist spinner.
But these considerations ended yesterday afternoon when Dalrymple was released from England's squad and sent off to play for Middlesex against Durham at Lord's. The departure of Dalrymple leaves England with one selectorial decision to make before taking on Pakistan, with Sajid Mahmood being the favourite to play ahead of Jonathan Lewis.
The decision to play Panesar is to be commended because it is a more positive and attack-minded option. As an all-round cricketer Dalrymple has the edge on Panesar but playing him as England's solitary spinner would have reduced the team's chances of taking 20 wickets and winning the match. Panesar is seven matches into what should be a long and successful Test career. He needs to improve his batting and fielding but few would doubt his quality as a bowler.
Kevin Pietersen is an occasional off-spinner but he looked encouraging at Lord's and he could fill in ably as a second spinner.
"You have to go into every Test match with the intention of winning it," said Andrew Strauss, the England captain.
"There are some grounds where you have to work harder to win a Test match and this is one of them. History suggests that games here go five days and we have to be prepared to play five long hard days of cricket if we want to get a result out of this game," Strauss said. "If we can draw on the positives of Lord's and play just that little bit better in certain areas there is no reason why we cannot win this Test."
Strauss did not state the areas where England need to improve but, after watching his side score over 800 runs in the first Test, it is fair to say he was happy with the team's batting. Panesar's bowling improved throughout the Test and much will be expected of him here, but it is the seamers who will need to show greater control and consistency.
The Old Trafford pitch, lovingly prepared by the groundsman, Peter Marron, is hard and grassy. The surface already possesses a number of cracks, which will continue to open as the game progresses, but it should provide a fast bowler with the two commodities he enjoys most - pace and bounce.
These factors should put a smile on the faces of Stephen Harmison, Matthew Hoggard and Mahmood. "The conditions will hopefully suit Harmison's style of bowling," Strauss said. "I felt he was finding his rhythm at the back end of the Lord's Test and he has bowled well at practice over the last two days. I think he is excited about the prospect of having a bowl out there.
"Sajid Mahmood is a bit quicker than Lewis and he possesses the ability to reverse swing the old ball, which are two very good assets to have. It is his home pitch too, and he is therefore very comfortable about bowling here. Lewis shows time and time again the value of putting the ball in the right area. We will have to decide whether we want a steady bowler or a guy who can produce something special."
Strauss suggested it would be he who had the final say on selection, a move that intimated he is looking to be more assertive now that he is captain for the remainder of the series. At Lord's there was the fingerprint of Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, on much that took place and it is to be hoped that Strauss is his own man here.
"Knowing that you are doing the job for the rest of the series makes it a little bit easier," Strauss said. "If you are only doing it for one game all you are thinking about are those five days of cricket, before putting the job to bed and returning to your batting.
"Now, with a longer period of time ahead of me I can sit down and think of ways of gelling the side into one that can win the series. I have not thought about captaining England in Australia - if you start looking too far ahead you can look stupid. We have three important Test matches to play and we will see how we go after that.
"It is a real shame to be without Fred [Andrew Flintoff] for the remainder of the series but the side showed at Lord's that it can play without him. Sometimes you need someone as important as Flintoff not to play to realise that you don't have to rely on him time and time again. He leaves a big hole and we need the senior guys to fill it. Hopefully, in the future we will be better for the experience."
Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach, said yesterday that they will select their side from the 15 players in the touring squad, squashing rumours that Shoaib Akhtar may make a dramatic return, or that Mushtaq Ahmed would be called up from Sussex.
The return of Younis Khan, an elegant and highly gifted middle order batsman, will strengthen Pakistan's batting but they too will need to find a cutting edge if they are to bowl England out twice.
Woolmer's batsmen have been using a strip of marble to practise on in an attempt to imitate the conditions they may encounter over the next five days . The slab, measuring a metre by half a metre, is lugged from the team coach to the nets in a wheelbarrow and placed on a good length. Woolmer, or one of the other coaches, will then throw cricket balls at it.
The nature of the hard surface, which the ball pings off quickly and steeply, gives the Pakistan batsmen practice against fast short-pitched bowling. If Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf or Younis Khan manage to get in here England's bowlers may need a wheelbarrow to carry their bowling figures back to the dressing-room.
When the gloves are on Test rivals by numbers
Scores of 18 and 16 in the first Test at Lord's and a batting average of 19 in the last 10 Test matches have done little to ease the pressure England's wicketkeeper Geraint Jones is under.
Many feel Jones should have been dropped some time ago for Chris Read, a player widely regarded as the best gloveman in England. That Duncan Fletcher refuses to entertain dropping Jones angers Read's fans, but the England coach does not continue to pick him solely because he is a good bloke, which he is. Jones' keeping is getting better.
He is a popular and selfless member of the team and he does have the potential to score Test 50s and 100s. Read has done everything he could and will not be the last cricketer to become a better player when he is out of the side.
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