James Lawton: Strauss must show his men are ready to face Ponting

For the second time this year, England showed a worrying failure to deliver the killer blows in a Test series that seemed at their mercy
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The Independent Online

All that derision greeting Ricky Ponting's assertion that England are heading for another Ashes whitewash may just have to be tempered at least a little over the next few days at The Oval.

Two days ago a degree of outrage seemed reasonably in order. So did the badly injured pride over the failure of a single Englishman to make the long list for Cricketer of the Year, until the ICC helpfully discovered that the spin sorcery of Graeme Swann had been ignored only because of a "genuine oversight".

However, this was before England for the second time this year showed a worrying failure to deliver the killer blows when presented with the challenge of coming home in a Test series that seemed at their mercy.

The first occasion was at The Wanderers in January, when South Africa did not so much hit back to tie a series of huge psychological significance as go on the rampage.

England captain Andrew Strauss was bitterly disappointed by that failure to deliver a coup de grâce which would have surely impinged even on the Australian article of faith that playing on their own soil they will always be capable of delivering massive retribution for past indignities.

Last night Strauss, who had to contend with the additional angst of putting down tail-ender Mohammad Asif as Pakistan eked out a modest but still potentially decisive lead, had to contend with the depressing possibility that he may have been presiding over the rebirth of a team which in the first two Test matches seemed separated not only from the possibility of glory but also mere competence.

That, though, was when England's seam attack of Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Steve Finn were benefiting from conditions that could not have been more desirable had they come by express mail order. Then the Pakistanis, apart from displaying some of the worst fielding seen on a Test field since the days of Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm, seemed congenitally incapable of playing one coherent shot after another. They were less a Test team than a collective nervous breakdown.

Now, though they were edging ahead of an England side who, at one point, seemed capable of winning every single phase of every contest with a team who, apart from some brilliant seam bowling from Asif and the precocious teenager Mohammad Aamer, appeared to have simply slid off the graph which charts progress at the highest level of the game.

One of the biggest chasms of class in supposedly significant Test competition had been closed with quite astonishing ease. Pakistan came into this Test at 11-2, which makes the most pleasant of reading for anyone optimistic enough to have invested in such a betting slip.

England might plead certain factors beyond their control. Bowling conditions, for a start, have been much less favourable, but disturbingly enough they have much been closer to the kind England will confront when they open the battle for the Ashes in Brisbane. It is also true that the Pakistanis played a desperate but hugely significant card when they called up the exiled, discredited veteran Mohammad Yousuf.

For much of his brilliantly concocted half-century, Yousuf appeared to be playing from memory, but it was one that became increasingly clear. Before the formidable Swann teased away at Yousuf's patience, and lured him into an inside edge which created an easy caught and bowled, we had seen Pakistan not only come back to life but threaten to take the firmest of grips. It was a sense that was underlined by the resurrected poise of Azhar Ali, another startled pair of eyes caught in the headlights a few weeks ago, but now an increasingly composed batsman who carried his bat for an undefeated 92 runs.

England, suddenly, were something less than the all-conquering prospects who mopped up the Australians on this same ground last summer, and it was a rather shocking prospect at the end of a summer which appeared to be so locked into unbridled dominance.

Any feeling for the ordeal of the embattled Alastair Cook as he walked to the wicket for a brief but intense trial at one of the most critical phases of his career widened into a greater concern. It was for the competitive mettle of a team who had obviously grown to believe in their own ability to build dramatically on the Ashes triumph.

Such a worry was instantly confirmed when Strauss fell in the first over to the vibrant Aamer.

It was the most sickening of blows at the worst of times. It lengthened Pakistan's lead of 75 with cruel haste and it confirmed the idea that sometimes English cricket has a tendency to celebrate its triumphs somewhat prematurely. Nor, surely, did it do any damage to the combative gleam in Ponting's eye.