Edgbaston nets could speed Shoaib's return

The news emanating from the subcontinent is as shrouded in mystery as any ball that has been bowled by Pakistani leg spinners down the years.

But if the Pakistan coach, Bob Woolmer, is to be believed then his strike bowler Shoaib Akhtar could be back in action earlier than had been thought.

Using his contacts at Edgbaston, Woolmer has arranged for Shoaib to use Warwickshire's training facilities and the Pakistan fast bowler, who is expected in England this weekend, will then play for a local club in order to test whether or not he has recovered from a stress fracture of his left ankle.

The news was confirmed yesterday by the chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, Shaharyar Khan, who said: "Shoaib will be training at Edgbaston and they will try to arrange a couple of club matches to help him come back from his injury."

Woolmer was optimistic about Shoaib's prospects of recovery, saying: "We're looking to get him going and - touch wood - he might be available for the third and fourth Tests,"

Shaharyar was less so. He said: "Shoaib will be training at Edgbaston," he said, "and they will try to arrange a couple of club matches to help him come back from his injury."

But he insisted that the earliest Shoaib could return to action would be for the fourth Test at the Oval on 17 to 21 August.

"Shoaib has been out of international cricket for quite some time and cannot just walk back in the squad," he said.

Shoaib, 30, who last played for Pakistan in the Karachi Test against India in January, has been dogged by knee and back problems and, after undergoing operations on both knees, has been out of action for the best part of five months.

He had been named in a provisional Pakistan squad for England earlier this summer, but was subsequently left out of the 16-man touring party after it was revealed that an ankle fracture, which he had suffered from earlier, had not healed.

From the tourists' point of view Shoaib cannot return to action fast enough. They certainly missed the potency that has brought 165 Test wickets - 17 of them in last winter's series between these two teams - as well as 199 one-day international wickets.

In fact, there has rarely been a time when Pakistan have not had a spearhead to their attack, and certainly not in the last 20 summers when the Test rubbers in England have been dominated by Pakistan.

Pakistan strike bowlers are rather like the Hydra. As one is scythed down so another appears, thus it was that when Imran Khan bowed out, up popped Waqar Younis, then Wasim Akram and then Shoaib.

And of course there has always been the prospect of some slow magic - specifically leg spin - if out-and-out hostility could not break through.

But that has all changed, albeit temporarily, which is why the England openers, Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick, were able to get the innings off to a smart start. At one point they were speeding along at seven runs an over, a rate that would have been all but unthinkable had Shoaib been sending down his venomous 90mph deliveries - and impossible with Waqar, Imran or Wasim in their pomp.

Even at the fall of the openers and the departure of Kevin Pietersen there was no pressing of the panic button by England, no sudden collapse. They knew that there was little out there to frighten them. As Alastair Cook and Paul Collingwood went on to prove as they turned Pakistan's early morning joy to an afternoon and early evening of toil in their record double-century partnership.

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