England talked a good game in the build-up to the fourth and final Test of the series against Pakistan. They spoke of the importance of maintaining their momentum before this winter's Ashes series and how the competition for places would bring out the best in them. But yesterday those words seemed rather empty as England were bowled out for 173 by a Pakistan side determined to finish the Test leg of the tour on a positive note.
With the series already won - and the tour of Australia fast approaching - it was inevitable that England would be slightly distracted, but their demise here was as much due to high-quality Pakistan bowling as their own poor batting.
Mohammad Asif, making his first appearance of the series, and Umar Gul shared eight wickets on a day when no England batsman passed 40. The overcast conditions were ideal for the pair to bowl in and England's total was their lowest since they were dismissed for 155 by Australia at Lord's 13 months ago.
England's bowlers were given the opportunity to exploit the conditions themselves as the shadows lengthened at the Oval, but the new ball was wasted by the profligate Matthew Hoggard and Stephen Harmison. Hoggard fired the ball down the leg-side while Harmison was cut so often by Imran Farhat that England must have been tempted to call for Henry Cooper's cornerman.
A knee injury caused Mohammad Hafeez to retire hurt with Pakistan on 35 for 0, and they had reached 70 before Younis Khan was "strangled" down the leg-side - caught by the wicketkeeper Chris Read off Sajid Mahmood. By the close the tourists had made a considerable dent into England's paltry total.
Inzamam-ul-Haq's decision to bowl after winning the toss in the morning surprised most of those who have bowled at this venue. Historically, the Oval pitch provides batsmen with an excellent surface on which to score runs but, even in the two deliveries that were bowled before the initial interruption for rain, it could be seen that the Pakistan captain had made the correct decision.
After a 30-minute delay the fit-again Asif, who missed the first three Tests with an elbow injury, and Gul seamed the ball around significantly as Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss sought to protect their wickets. Strauss was by far the more comfortable of the England opening pair, leaving the ball whenever he could and moving confidently into position when playing it.
Initially, Asif and Gul failed to bowl the right length, pitching the ball fractionally short on too many occasions. It is a common fault among excitable fast bowlers when they are given good conditions in which to work. It looks good when the ball flies through to the wicketkeeper at head height, but when a ball is pitched too short it has often deviated more than it needs to by the time it reaches the batsman, missing rather than clipping the outside edge of his bat.
In an attempt to correct the error the pair searched for a fuller length, but Strauss drove them through the covers on each occasion they overpitched. Trescothick's footwork was far less convincing than that of his opening partner. Throughout the series his weight has been on the back foot and this has made him late on his forward strokes. It is a problem he needs to address before the winter.
Despite his lack of form, Trescothick battled on for more than an hour, but his vigil ended when he sliced a forcing shot at Gul to Hafeez, who took a low, diving catch in the gully. Strauss continued to play with confidence, pulling Asif twice for four, and the fast bowler had to wait until the 10th over of his opening spell to claim his first wicket.
Pakistan have missed Asif in a series where their bowling has lacked discipline and a cutting edge. This may be only his sixth Test but he has built up quite a reputation since taking 10 for 106 for Pakistan A against England in November 2005. In his previous four Tests Asif has bowled with skill and control, taking 24 wickets at an average of 16.5.
These faculties allowed him to take the crucial wickets of Strauss and Kevin Pietersen with consecutive deliveries. There was little Strauss could do about the ball that dismissed him. It left him off the pitch, tickled his outside edge and was well caught by Kamran Akmal behind the stumps.
Pietersen, with last summer's remarkable innings of 158 against Australia at this venue still fresh in the minds of a capacity crowd, walked out to a huge ovation but on this occasion he failed to deliver. It was a good ball that found his outside edge but one has to question the aggressive nature of the stroke he played. This, however, is the way Pietersen plays and spectators have to accept that there will be days when he disappoints.
Alastair Cook kept the hat-trick ball out, but Paul Collingwood soon became Asif's third victim. Before being trapped in front by a ball that nipped back, Collingwood brought up his 1,000th Test run when he edged Asif to third man for four. In an era when batsmen and bowlers are perpetually breaking records Collingwood's feat does not appear huge but in reaching the landmark he has shown that he can compete at this level.
Asif had now taken 3 for 4 in 11 balls and England's desire to leave for Australia with a confidence-boosting victory behind them was in real danger. Cook and Ian Bell put on 27 runs, but both fell before the tea interval.
Throughout the series Inzamam has been forced to bowl Danish Kaneria earlier than he would have wanted but yesterday his introduction was delayed until the 31st over and the leg-spinner struck with his fourth delivery when Bell edged a defensive stroke on to his pad and Faisal Iqbal took a simple catch at silly mid-off.
Cook walked across a Shahid Nazir yorker and was hit plumb in front to leave the hosts on 112 for 6 and without a recognised batsman at the crease. The wicketkeeper Read once again batted with enterprise, but England's tail had no answer to the deadly accurate Gul, who hit the stumps on three occasions.
Moment of the day
Inviting the opposition to bat at the Oval is a brave and potentially dangerous decision and Inzamam-ul-Haq, the Pakistan captain, surprised everyone when he chose this option yesterday. But it proved to be an inspired decision as Pakistan bowled England out for 173 to put themselves firmly in control.
Shot of the day
Batting was difficult during the morning session but Andrew Strauss, the England captain, still managed to play a couple of delightful strokes. The best of these was a drive off Umar Gul, the Pakistan opening bowler, that raced to the cover boundary for four. It was one of the few good shots yesterday.
Ball of the day
Mohammad Asif arrived in England with a big reputation and it was easy to see why. In helpful conditions, he provided
Pakistan with the cutting edge they have been lacking, finishing with 4 for 56. The ball that dismissed Kevin Pietersen was a gem, leaving the batsman off the pitch and finding the outside edge.
Weather and TV times
Weather Sunshine and heavy showers. Max temp: 21C
Television Live: Sky Sports 1, 10.30am Highlights: Five, 7.15pm
First day of five; Pakistan won toss
England - First Innings
M E Trescothick c Mohammad Hafeez b Umar Gul 6 61 min, 43 balls
*A J Strauss c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Asif 38 86 min, 57 balls, 7 fours
A N Cook lbw b Shahid Nazir 40 120 min, 69 balls, 6 fours
K P Pietersen c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Asif 0 1 min, 1 ball
P D Collingwood lbw b Mohammad Asif 5 17 min, 7 balls, 1 four
I R Bell c Faisal Iqbal b Danish Kaneria 9 43 min, 28 balls, 1 four
ÝC M W Read b Umar Gul 33106 min, 62 balls, 3 fours
S I Mahmood b Umar Gul 15 44 min, 32 balls, 2 fours
M J Hoggard c Kamran Akmal b Mohammad Asif 3 12 min, 12 balls
S J Harmison not out 8 18 min, 15 balls, 2 fours
M S Panesar b Umar Gul 0 1 min, 1 ball
Extras (b4 lb5 nb7) 16
Total (259 min, 53.2 overs) 173
Fall: 1-36 (Trescothick) 2-54 (Strauss) 3-54 (Pietersen) 4-64 (Collingwood) 5-91 (Bell) 6-112 (Cook) 7-158 (Mahmood) 8-163 (Hoggard) 9-173 (Read) 10-173 (Panesar).
Bowling: Mohammad Asif 19-6-56-4 (13-5-39-3, 6-1-17-1); Umar Gul 15.2-3-46-4 (nb3) (10-2-30-1, 2-0-9-0, 3.2-1-7-3); Shahid Nazir 11-1-44-1 (nb3) (one spell); Danish Kaneria 8-1-18-1 (nb1) (6-1-7-1, 2-0-11-0).
Progress: First day: rain stopped play 11.01-11.33am at 0-0. RSP 12.08-1.29pm 27-0 (Trescothick 4, Strauss 22) 8 overs. Early lunch taken: 12.50pm. 50: 80 min, 17.3 overs. 100: 170 min, 35.2 overs. Tea: 134-6 (Read 26, Mahmood 1) 42 overs. 150: 215 min, 45.3 overs. Innings closed: 5.32pm.
Pakistan - First Innings
Mohammad Hafeez ret hurt 8 22 balls, 1 four
Imran Farhat not out 57 75 balls, 7 fours
Younis Khan c Read b Mahmood 9 13 balls
Mohammad Yousuf not out 12 25 balls, 1 four
Extras (lb1 w6 nb3) 10
Total (for 1, 22 overs) 96
Fall: 1-70 (Younis Khan).
To bat: *Inzamam-ul-Haq, Faisal Iqbal, ÝKamran Akmal, Shahid Nazir, Mohammad Asif, Umar Gul, Danish Kaneria.
Bowling: Hoggard 9-0-29-0; Harmison 6-1-38-0; Mahmood 6-1-24-1; Panesar 1-0-4-0.
Umpires: B R Doctrove (WI) and D B Hair (Aus).
TV replay umpire: P J Hartley.
Match referee: M J Procter.