Fletcher's plan to turn the corner

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The Independent Online

Nobody associated with the England team was fooling themselves that spin would take a holiday on this tour. They knew it was lurking there somewhere and would pounce, spitting and squirming horribly.

Nobody associated with the England team was fooling themselves that spin would take a holiday on this tour. They knew it was lurking there somewhere and would pounce, spitting and squirming horribly.

When it came on a surface begging for the stuff it came in waves, so that when one was done another took his place. Nobody knew quite what to do - so they got out.

There is the last match of the one-day series to be negotiated tomorrow in Rawalpindi, effectively a final with the teams tied at 1-1. England could win it because they must still be reflecting on how well they played on Tuesday in the first match, winning by five wickets having overhauled a total of 304.

But things have changed since then and it is possible they may never be the same again. The spinners are in town. The three of them took eight of the nine English wickets to fall in 30 combined overs for 108 runs. It can also have done the English psyche no good that the main wicket-taker was the least regarded ofthe trio - Shahid Afridi, who took 5 for 40.

There is no point in panicking about this, and Duncan Fletcher, the side's coach, will not be putting up his arms in surrender to Afridi, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed or anybody else and admitting that it is a fair cop despite the evidence so far. "We've got to think about it," he said, "but I stayed up last night to watch India, very good players spin, play spin against Muralitharan. They struggled. It's no different from saying let's go to England when we have seamers and you play badly and you can't play seam bowling."

Fletcher is attempting to provide a balanced viewpoint, but it was not so much that England lost wickets on a turner at Lahore as the way they did so. Not only were they uncomfortable, they were misguided. The sweep shot is an important option against all spin bowling, played properly, but it is not the only one.

On Friday night under the lights of the Lahore Stadium no England player, save perhaps Andrew Flintoff, regularly tried to hit the ball in front of the wicket with the full face of the bat. It multiplied the risks.

"At times when spin bowlers bowl on spin wickets they're going to dominate the game," said Fletcher, "and whoever plays it is going to have a problem. That doesn't alter the fact that we have got to work on our spin bowling. There's no doubt about it. We don't have enough of it in England on turning wickets so we lack experience."

Fletcher said that when England won the first match in the present one-day series they had played spin well, in the manner they should have played it in the second, disturbing display on Friday. "Sometimes it's probably just the way they want to dominate a spin bowler. It's how they go about trying to dominate, the method you adopt, work them round for ones or try to hit boundaries. Be wary of when and how you do that."

It is a harbinger of doom for the forthcoming Test series and it hardly augurs well for tomorrow's game if the pitch turns, especially if England's craze for the sweep continues to match that of eight-year-old boys for Pokemon cards.

Fletcher invoked India again and especially Tendulkar. "I wanted to see how he did it and the first ball he plays a sweep, second ball a sweep," he said. "There's the best player in the world sweeping, but when England do it we shouldn't be."

The most prominent sweeper, and perhaps its least effective exponent, has been Nasser Hussain, England's captain. He has always played the shot, as Fletcher said, and if he was not playing it well at present then should a good cover driver who starts nicking a few cut out the cover drive?

England will probably select the same side in view of their shortage of other options. None of the remaining members of the squad is likely to provide a significant extra advantage. The batting order, too, will remain the same.

Fletcher may be aware of accusations of inflexibility but was emphatic: "We've got a situation where guys don't really know how to play the roles they've got. Suddenly we're saying let's mess the batting order around. They must know what their roles are, hopefully with a static side. When they're confident that's when we can say, 'right, let's move the batting order around.' "

Tomorrow may be too early for that and thus it may be too late for England. They would probably prefer to bat second as that seems to make for the better conditions. The dew is making life difficult for bowlers and bringing forward the start to noon to make it a day-twilight match has not eradicated that. Equally, England know that Pakistan are shaky chasers and that a target of above 250 might be beyond them.

Hussain is regularly saying that they should not overreact to either victory or defeat. The trick now will be to garner confidence from last Tuesday's exhilarating win and to ignore the lowering in morale doubtless infused by Friday's loss. Pakistan will still start as favourites.

After Monday, the squad begin to prepare for the Tests, staying on in Rawalpindi for a four-day match. The Test squad only members, who have already arrived, will all probably play. It will be good to see the Michaels, Atherton and Vaughan, in English colours again.

But spin is the order of the day here now and Ian Salisbury, England's only leg-spinner, will quickly come under the microscope. At least he has had success in Pakistan before. Whatever England do now, they must not sweep spin under the carpet.