England falter to squander fine start

Openers Atherton and Trescothick lay solid foundations but Saqlain strikes back with four wickets
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The Independent Online

Home or abroad, the name of Michael Atherton has become a trademark for resilience and dependability. Unflappable against pace, swing or spin, he yesterday gave a master-class in all three to score 73 and help England end their first day of Test cricket in Pakistan for 13 years on 195 for 4.

Home or abroad, the name of Michael Atherton has become a trademark for resilience and dependability. Unflappable against pace, swing or spin, he yesterday gave a master-class in all three to score 73 and help England end their first day of Test cricket in Pakistan for 13 years on 195 for 4.

It is not a position of strength for England but, with a soft ball on a slow pitch and an even slower outfield, it was probably worth 25 runs more. Atherton, who became the sixth English player to pass 7,000 Test runs, certainly thought so, though his 134-run opening partnership with Marcus Trescothick, who made a fine 71, should really have seen England into a more commanding position after Nasser Hussain had won an important toss.

"There was something there for the spinners and there will be more as the match progresses," said Atherton, aware that he had joined Graham Gooch, David Gower, Geoff Boycott, Walter Hammond and Colin Cowdrey as one of England's leading run-scorers.

"Playing spin here is a different challenge to those seen in England over the past few years," he added. "You get a lot of balls in a short space of time and you need mental stamina as well as a game plan."

This was Atherton and Trescothick's second successive century partnership following the 159 they put on against the West Indies at The Oval in the final Test of last summer. They dovetail well: a left-right combination that pits Trescothick's powerful weight of stroke with Atherton's nous and technique. In addition, both appear to be big-match players - Atherton in particular came into this Test distinctly run-shy.

Following a stand like that, England should have ended the day cock-a-hoop. That they did not was due to a combination of Saqlain Mushtaq, who took all four of the wickets to fall, and several rushes of blood, the most foolish being that of Hussain.

Having twice dropped down the order - the first when taking a 10-minute break from waiting to bat, the second for treatment to his bad back - Hussain tried to take the attack to Saqlain. But, after lifting one four back over the spinner's head, an attempt to repeat the shot an over later was greeted by Saqlain's mysterious reverse spinner, a ball that leaves the right hander off the pitch.

Although the delivery comes out slower and more flighted than his off and top-spinners, Hussain failed to read it and ended up slicing his lofted drive to Wasim Akram at extra cover. When he is playing well, the England captain likes to attack the bowling, but the psychological ascendancy yesterday lay not in some personal duel with the bowlers but with him still being there with Graham Thorpe at the close of play.

Thorpe survived two chances, both of them off his Surrey team-mate Saqlain. The first, a drop at slip by the 20-year-old debutant, Qaiser Abbas, came when he had made just two; the other, at silly point, when he was 20. In one of the more bizarre displays of captaincy, Moin Khan had no fewer than five different players fielding at slip to the spinners, a turnover that suggested none felt comfortable there.

Saqlain is a brilliant performer who, for an off-break bowler, possesses a bewildering array of variations. In his 30 overs he unleashed most of them, though, judging from the manner in which he took his wickets, not all of England's batsmen can read them. He also uses the crease well, but in a bid to create extra angles he often cuts the side crease with his back foot. Such an infringement should be called no-ball, though neither umpire saw fit to do so yesterday.

With 64 of the day's 84 overs taken up by spin, albeit of varying quality, the techniques of England's batsmen were put under the microscope. None, though, bore the close inspection better than Atherton's, and after seeing off the new ball he kept the spinners at bay with soft hands and a steely determination. It is not a combination that works for everyone and Graeme Hick, looking equally secure at the end of the day, prefers to go firmly at the ball.

Atherton also got in a big stride when playing forward, something most of the top order have attempted to do since being exposed by spin in the one-day matches a few weeks ago. The exception to this was Alec Stewart who, misreading the length of a quicker ball by Saqlain, was caught on the crease and given out lbw.

Stewart is not at his best starting against spin, but there was no such excuse for either Trescothick or Atherton. In Trescothick's case a slow period after lunch, when Moin put his field back, probably contributed to his downfall. Yet his attempt to drag Saqlain over mid-wicket was not a gamble without precedence as he succumbed trying something equally reckless in the four-day match last week.

By comparison Atherton's dismissal, caught at backward square leg after checking his sweep, was slightly more forgivable, though Moin had positioned Yousuf Youhana for just such a shot. It was also Saqlain's mystery ball, which may be why Atherton did not go through with his stroke.

Pakistan had four spinners at their disposal and just two seamers. But after the opening overs by Wasim and Abdur Razzaq, where the ball did nothing out of the ordinary save when Trescothick hammered successive pulls for four off Abdur, such a ratio did not appear outrageous.

Everyone from the groundsman to the local roti seller had promised a turning pitch, but to prove really spiteful spinners need bounce as well. So far this pitch has been subdued in that respect. If it stays that way, the result so many predicted inside four days may not materialise.


England won toss

ENGLAND - First Innings

M A Atherton c Yousuf b Saqlain 73 274 min, 190 balls, 3 fours M E Trescothick c Salim b Saqlain 71 215 min, 193 balls, 6 fours G P Thorpe not out 22 114 min, 80 balls, 1 four ÿA J Stewart lbw b Saqlain 3 9 min, 7 balls *N Hussain c Wasim b Saqlain 7 17 min, 13 balls, 1 four G A Hick not out 6 27 min, 27 balls Extras (b3 lb3 nb7) 13 Total (for 4, 330min, 84 overs) 195

Fall: 1-134 (Trescothick) 2-169 (Atherton) 3-173 (Stewart) 4-183 (Hussain).

To bat: C White, A F Giles, I D K Salisbury, A R Caddick, D Gough.

Bowling (to date): Wasim Akram 9-4-12-0 (nb3) (5-3-7-0, 4-1-5-0); Abdur Razzaq 11-4-29-0 (nb1) (7-2-25-0, 4-2-4-0); Saqlain Mushtaq 30-7-61-4 (nb2) (9-0-26-0, 6-0-16-0, 15-7-19-4); Mushtaq Ahmed 23-4-69-0 (nb1) (8-2-14-0, 3-0-23-0, 12-2-32-0); Shahid Afridi 9-3-17-0 (2-1-3-0, 7-2-14-0), Qaiser Abbas 2-1-1-0 (one spell).

Progress: 50: 76 min, 17.5 overs. Lunch: 76-0 (Atherton 27, Trescothick 44) 31 overs. 100: 137 min, 35.2 overs. Tea: 148-1 (Atherton 66, Thorpe 3) 62 overs. 150: 244 min, 63.1 overs.

Atherton's 50: 171 min, 121 balls, 1 four.

Trescothick's 50: 127 min, 113 balls, 5 fours.

PAKISTAN: Saeed Anwar, Shahid Afridi, Salim Elahi, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf Youhana, Qaiser Abbas, Abdur Razzaq, *ÿMoin Khan, Wasim Akram, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed.

Umpires: D B Hair (Aus) and Riazuddin (Pak).

TV replay umpire: Saleem Badar.

Match referee: R S Madugalle.