More Pandora's box than Test series

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The Independent Online

It is too early to suggest that the Test series which starts on Wednesday is already on a knife edge. There should be at least a couple of days' grace before that precarious point is reached.

It is too early to suggest that the Test series which starts on Wednesday is already on a knife edge. There should be at least a couple of days' grace before that precarious point is reached.

For now, every endeavour is being made to ensure that England and Pakistan can arrive in Lahore on normal sledging terms. For now, nobody is knifing anybody, but there is a spoon on view and it is stirring a combustible mix.

After 13 long years since England last toured this country, misgivings have given way to a cautious, oft-repeated mutual trust, but those assuming this meant a convivial time ahead were probably disabused on Friday. There have been private mutterings in the past month about umpires, after some admittedly rum decisions, but there was nothing untoward in that.

The day players stop muttering about umpires the United States will have a President. But on Friday, England, in the shape of Andrew Caddick, went public. If Akhtar Sarfraz did not hit the ball which went through to the wicketkeeper, then willow and leather will never be in closer proximity.

Caddick over-reacted predictably and it is no use suggesting to a fast bowler in these circumstances that he button his lip and arrange to have dinner with batsman and umpire that evening. Unless you happened to be Brian Statham, a future in flower arranging awaits. But this was different because history has made it so.

England went through Pakistan in 1987 believing they were the victims of a conspiracy and the evidence did not do much to rebuff them. Time has passed, relations have been repaired, they have come here rightly determined to have open minds. It is not the time to be closing them. That will only make things far worse in the three Tests ahead and Duncan Fletcher, the coach, was probably correct, if disingenuous, to play down Caddick's wonderful tantrum. As Fletcher spoke without his facial muscles twitching an inch, the temptation was to think that England at least have spin mastered in one respect.

Umpiring in Pakistan could not be accused of rigid efficiency but this is the country, do not forget, which has repeatedly called for two neutrals in all Tests. When England think they are on the receiving end of a bum rap on Wednesday morning, or any time thereafter until 12 December, they would do well to remember that above all.

The likelihood is, as it was on the most recent tour, that Pakistan can win without digits being inserted into the proceedings at inappropriate times. Or not being inserted. England are a side making progress, they have come here off the back of two successive homeseries wins, over Zimbabwe and West Indies, but they are not the finished article and they are candid enough to recognise it.

There is no escaping the most gaping differences between the sides. Pakistan have two world- class spinners and England do not. Pakistan have proven players of spin bowling and England do not. Javed Miandad, the home side's coach, may have been wittering on about a desire for sporting pitches last week but they will be sporting pitches that turn from the second hour. England's record against spin of quality is hopeless. Come to think it, their record against anything has been hopeless, but spin has put them into their most befuddled tizzies. Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Stuart MacGill have all persuaded English bats and pads to part like the Red Sea.

Nobody, however, has undermined them as much as Abdul Qadir, who was mesmeric here 13 years back. Saqlain Mushtaq, who is described in the books as an off-spinner but should fall into that rare category of magical spinner, and Mushtaq Ahmed, the leg spinner, can together ask similarly hazardous questions. Another leg spinner called Danish Kaneria is also lurking about, as is the batting leg spinner, Shahid Afridi.

In the one-day series England's batsmen were exposed against the turning ball. They have had some time since to work out their method and everything points to the safety-first sweep from the crease. This is because they will not trust themselves to read Saqlain, in particular, and if they become half-literate against him, they still have the problem of playing him. Reading James Joyce is one thing, having the first clue of what he might be on about is another.

Patience will be the key virtue. As it will be for any England slow bowlers. They must be careful to avoid attacking too quickly, too much. Otherwise Pakistan's batsman, led by the magnificent Saeed Anwar with support from Inzamam -ul-Haq, will dominate.

All this is meant as a warning, not as an indication of certain defeat. The Gaddafi Stadium is not notorious for positive results. Of the 30 Tests played there since 1959, Pakistan have won seven, the touring team have won five and 18 have been drawn. Pakistan have not won there for 10 years and six matches, England won their only one of 18 Tests (at the first attempt) in this country at the ground in 1962. In all, some 43 per cent of wickets at the ground have fallen to spin, though in the Nineties, the swinging pace of Waqar Younis held sway.

So, England will probably opt for a side designed to try to ensure a draw if an unlikely victory fails to hove into view. They will almost certainly, therefore, play seven batsmen. While this is a ploy which is not to be recommended it is also never quite what it seems in England's case since the septet also includes the wicketkeeper, Alec Stewart.

Stewart, seemingly free of any burdens that might have been imposed by the allegations 10 days ago, is still key to England's plans. Fletcher has become a dab hand at dismissing the seven batsmen canard. Look, he will say, you want six batsmen, we shall pick six and put the wicketkeeper at seven. And then move him up to five. Happy?

This probably means that in Lahore, Graeme Hick will bat at seven with Ashley Giles filling the sole spinner's place and Craig White being nominated as the all-rounder. To risk Ian Salisbury so early would be bold and a trifle foolhardy. In his little spells so far, Salisbury has bowled better than his critics might have feared and his googly is a creature of genuine menace. "I'm forever bowling googlies," he might wish to sing but he cannot, must not and the rest of his artillery could give England too many problems too early.

There are not many places available in Pakistan's side either. Imran Nazir is expected to be Saeed's partner and he looks wristily proficient. They probably have to decide whether to play Afridi for his fill-in bowling (fill-in against most sides, that is, but possibly not England) or leave out the exciting Saleem Elahi. Their all-rounder will be the still-more exciting Abdur Razzaq.

One more thing for England to be concerned about, apart from their spin and the opposition's: Wasim Akram is still around. Perhaps the best England can hope for is a draw and no knife-edges.

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