Northamptonshire 269-3 dec & 140 Pakistan 250-9 dec & 160-3: Woolmer itching to pile pressure on hosts

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The Independent Online

It has not been the best of weeks for England, which considering they have spent most of it with their feet up watching The Open may be a tad surprising. But consider what has happened. Justin Langer broke Viv Richards' highest Somerset score with a huge triple-hundred at Guildford, a timely reminder of what awaits England in November, Pakistan defeated Northamptonshire in two and a half days with a second-string outfit and Freddie Flintoff needs an operation on his ankle which will rule him out for about three months.

None of which can be classified as encouraging so it was absolutely right that Bob Woolmer, the Pakistan coach with plenty of injury problems of his own to fret over should compound England's misery by declaring: "The spirit in the camp is very good". And so it should be with this week's Test being played at Old Trafford, a pitch suited to the tourists' reverse swing skills and wristy spin and batting.

The Pakistani batsmen are in form and likely to be strengthened as Younis Khan has looked sharp enough to rejoin Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf in the most daunting middle-order in the game.

Their bowlers are rested and they know that their record in Manchester is excellent. With their ability to score such big totals, there is a chance that the spurned opportunity at Lord's will be England's last chance in the series, especially in the absence of Flintoff.

"I don't know the full situation about his ankle," said Woolmer, "but if it is similar to Shaun Pollock's, Lance Klusener's or Allan Donald's when I was with South Africa, they all had ankle injuries on the front foot, the one hitting the ground hard and they all had ops."

More good news then. Actually, at least Flintoff having the operation next week will stop the constant fudging of the issue and hopefully get him fit for the Ashes.

"At Lord's I was generally pleased with the way we played," said Woolmer. "On the first day I felt we didn't make the most of the conditions and we dropped some catches but at the end we were right in it and our play improved throughout the match. That improvement has continued in this match.

"Our bowlers, Mohammad Sami, Umar Gul and Abdul Razzaq have been specifically rested for the second Test and the injury that Razzaq had is now fine, 100 per cent better. I would say we are very happy with our preparations for the Second Test."

All very well and in case they suffer another injury before Thursday there is always Shahid Nazir to call on as well. "He bowled very well in the second innings here at Northampton," added Woolmer, but what excites most followers is the rumour that Shoaib Akhtar might be available soon, although, to judge by Flintoff's absence, they should not rush him back.

"There are many rumours about Shoaib but the fact is as of today he is 15 days away from bowling his first ball in anger," explained Woolmer. "With the third Test running back-to-back with the second, I think [that] would put him out but I really can't say. He needs to come through some strenuous workouts and they are some time off. He could be fit for the third Test, but it is more likely the fourth."

At least England can still count on the frailty of the opening partnership. Imran Farhat and Salman Butt may have hit half-centuries in the Northamptonshire sunshine but their record in Tests is less than impressive.

Matthew Hoggard's mix of in-swing and balls slanted to the slips breeds indecision so England can make early breakthroughs. Can they do more than that? Not with only four bowlers, but with no Flintoff, what are the options? Duncan Fletcher proved cautious at Lord's delaying the declaration so that means Ian Bell at No 6 and hard yakka for the bowlers. Monty Panesar may enjoy it if it turns but against Danish Kaneria and Shahid Afridi, even that is a false hope.

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