Pakistan 300-4 v England: Afridi let off leash by Vaughan blunder on England day of toil

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The Independent Online

Shahid Afridi hit a belligerent and explosive unbeaten 67 as Pakistan dominated the first day of the second Test here yesterday. Afridi, whose spectacular 62-ball innings contained five fours and four sixes, ended England's hopes of bowling Pakistan out cheaply in a match they must win if they want to keep their run of series victories alive. On a plum batting pitch, and in front of an ecstatic crowd, Pakistan had raced to 300 for 4 by the close.

Afridi was not the only Pakistan batsman to thrive on a punishing day for Michael Vaughan's side. Inzamam-ul-Haq was rarely troubled during a majestic unbeaten 80, and Mohammad Yousuf threw away the chance of completing a 14th Test century when he drove loosely and was brilliantly caught and bowled by Ian Bell on 78.

England's day would have been even tougher but for the outstanding catching of Andrew Flintoff and Bell - whose low one-handed take was questioned by Yousuf before he reluctantly left the field - and the careless strokeplay of Pakistan's top three batsmen.

Yet despite these moments of inspiration, Vaughan, and the England team, would have returned to the team hotel last night ruing the dropped chance given to them by Afridi when he was on 34.

Vaughan was the guilty fielder, grassing a relatively easy catch at short extra cover off the bowling of Matthew Hoggard. The England captain could not blame his troublesome right knee for the blunder; the ball flew a foot to his right and at shoulder height. It was a catch he should have taken.

Afridi then heightened Vaughan's sense of disappointment when he struck Shaun Udal for two huge sixes in the next over.

Steve Harmison and Flintoff were once again outstanding for England. They conceded around two and a half runs an over, which was an achievement in itself on a bland, unresponsive surface like this. Yet England were unable to capitalise on their efforts because of a lack of support from the remaining members of the attack.

The spin of Ashley Giles and Udal was treated largely with contempt by Pakistan's batsmen, and Hoggard looked ineffective with the old ball. Giles and Udal were struck into or over the stands on seven occasions, and, when bad light ended play, Flintoff had sent down the same number of overs as the pair, and conceded half the runs.

"It has been a difficult day for us," admitted Duncan Fletcher, the England coach. "The toss was crucial and it would have been nice to have won it. That's seven out of eight we have lost in international matches in Pakistan. We would have wanted one or two more wickets for it to have been a good day but I think our guys stuck to their task very well and you have to give credit to the Pakistan batsmen, who played well after we had had them in a bit of trouble.

"It was unfortunate that we dropped Afridi," he added. "We have taken some very good catches in Pakistan but every now and then you are going to drop the odd catch."

Afridi's tactics would not have surprised England. The dashing right-hander scored the fastest one-day international hundred in his first innings for Pakistan when he was just 16 years old - off 37 balls - and he has spent time playing county cricket for Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Kent.

It is one thing knowing what Afridi will do, quite another controlling him. His batting has made him a hero in Pakistan and the noise in the Iqbal Stadium increased significantly when the crowd realised Afridi was walking out to bat. He allowed his first delivery to pass harmlessly through to the keeper, before crashing the next three balls from Bell to the boundary.

By now the stands were throbbing. "Pakistan Zindabad [Long live Pakistan]," chanted the fans on the terraces that, due to the Pakistan Cricket Board's marvellous initiative of giving 60 per cent of the 18,000 seats away for free, were full.

Harmison replaced Bell and, briefly, a sense of normality returned. But Afridi can only block so many balls before he has to swipe and he soon flicked Harmison for six with a stroke that resembled a man swatting a fly with a rolled-up newspaper.

In England we have sat in awe and watched some of the hitting of Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, but Afridi is in a different league to these two. In an attempt to unsettle him Vaughan rotated his bowlers and changed the fields. At times he had five catchers on the boundary, but still the runs kept coming.

It is hard to imagine what Inzamam was thinking at the other end. The Pakistan captain hits a long ball himself but he has been around long enough and seen Afridi bat on too many occasions to try to compete with him.

Afridi, who made a century in Barbados against the West Indies in his last Test innings, was one of two replacements in the Pakistan team. The reported Shabbir Ahmed was dropped for Naved-ul-Hasan, and Afridi was chosen ahead of Hasan Raza. England left out Paul Collingwood for Vaughan.

The sun had not quite dissipated the smog and dust that are constantly present here before the toss, but on hearing the cheers from the crowd it was clear who had called correctly. Unsurprisingly, Inzamam chose to bat and after three overs Pakistan, on 22 for 0, looked set for a massive score.

But the mood of the day changed during a 10-over spell in which England took 3 for 20. Harmison struck first when Salman Butt wafted at a ball he should have left alone, and six overs later Younis Khan carelessly shovelled a Flintoff delivery to square-leg.

Hoggard claimed the third wicket but it had more to do with the brilliance of Flintoff than his bowling. Malik drove the ball hard through extra cover but to his disbelief Flintoff, who was fielding 15 yards from the bat, dived to his right and held on to a superb one-handed catch.

Great players do great things and Flintoff will do well to better this catch in his career.