For much of the time here yesterday, the confident talk was of England becoming the next world champions. Who knows what may be in prospect in the spring, but first things first.
There is still a contest to be won this summer after Pakistan took the third match of the NatWest Series last night in scintillating style. The principal architect of a victory that was more unexpected than usual (which is saying something) was the fast bowler Umar Gul, who took 6 for 42 in 10 overs, the last four wickets in 18 balls for six runs. It was a spectacular and thrilling exhibition, deploying late reverse swing which England's batsmen found unplayable.
Gul has had a pretty wretched time of it this summer, in common with most of his team-mates. The acute movement which is his stock in trade had deserted him and in the first two matches of this series he had taken a solitary wicket in 15.3 overs which had yielded 126 runs. He looked a spent force in a team that was in a state of disharmony and seemed as though it might never win another game.
When Pakistan were all out for 242 that view was merely reinforced. England were clearly much too confident and tough to blow this. Future world champions after all.
But Gul was simply irresistible on a ground where he has equally spectacular previous. It was at The Oval in the World Twenty20 last year where he took five for six in three overs of a similar spellbinding nature against New Zealand and helped to propel them to the title.
But that was then and this was now. Such a spell seemed beyond him again. But there is something about old bowlers when they sense that things at last are on their side.
Gul conceded 10 from his first over as England resumed where they had left off against him at Headingley, flippin' murderin' him. But there was the suspicion that something might be about to unfold when he removed Andrew Strauss with a ball of full length that shot back, and took the inside edge on its way to the stumps.
Strauss had again played with calm authority with a finely judged 57 from 54 balls and his demise, after England appeared to overcome the careless loss of early wicket, put them back into some trouble at 97 for 4. When Gul then had a hapless Mike Yardy lbw, England were 104 for 5. He blinked as he left the scene, he looked like a rabbit in headlights – and was not to be alone.
Order was restored in the normal form of Eoin Morgan. Calmly, purposefully, he guided England to a position from where they would have expected to secure an unassailable 3-0 lead in the series. There had been six fours in his quietly powerful innings – 61 from 74 balls and just about to hit the throttle – when Gul returned.
Morgan reached for the ball on leg stump and flicked it without control to mid-wicket where he was caught. It was the last innocuous delivery that Gul was to bowl. Thereafter, he knew what he had to do and did it.
Tim Bresnan was left flat-footed and had his stumps splayed by a ball that perfectly demonstrated his mastery of reverse swing. Stuart Broad, after several exchanges of words with Gul which did not suggest they were making arrangements to go on holiday together after the series, was also bowled by one that moved late the other way.
Finally, Graeme Swann, England's last hope and facing Gul's last ball, poked a half-volley in the air and straight to cover. It was not a time to surrender wickets, Gul was quite capable of taking them without help.
That was about that. Luke Wright who had shared in what appeared to be a match-winning partnership of 98 with Morgan was left unbeaten, if not stranded, on 48.
How different it had all been when England had the ball in their hand. In the bright autumn sunshine, Pakistan batted fitfully but without any purpose in mind. Jimmy Anderson, who is ending the summer splendidly, assembled a highly skilful and clever spell of bowling. His 10 overs yielded only 26 runs and this was a craftsman at work on a flat pitch.
Fawad Alam made 64 from 84 balls for Pakistan but was out when he needed to go on. Their captain Shahid Afridi briefly threatened mayhem at the end – and what a half hour it would have been – but he was run out rather dozily wandering from his ground and then seeing the throw rebound off his outstretched bat on to the stumps. Unfortunate, perhaps, but still dozy and it seemed to sum up the tourists until Gul entered the fray and reminded all of the old, glorious uncertainties.
The Oval: Pakistan beat England by 23 runs
Pakistan won toss
Runs 6s 4s Bls
K Akmal b Bresnan 5 0 1 13
M Hafeez c Davies b Anderson 1 0 0 3
A Shafiq c Morgan b Swann 40 0 4 59
M Yousuf lbw b Anderson 16 0 1 22
F Alam c Strauss b Yardy 64 0 3 86
U Akmal c Swann b Bresnan 14 0 0 20
* S S M K Afridi run out 34 1 3 29
A Razzaq c Anderson b Broad 31 1 3 24
U Gul b Bresnan 14 0 1 32
S Ajmal lbw b Anderson 2 0 0 3
S Akhtar not out 6 0 1 7
Extras (lb 6, w 8) 14
Total (49.4 overs) 241
Fall: 1-8, 2-8, 3-31, 4-95, 5-121, 6-181, 7-185, 8-227, 9-234, 10-241.
Bowling: T T Bresnan 9.4-1-51-3, J M Anderson 10-2-26-3, S C J Broad 10-0-45-1, G P Swann 10-0-53-1, L J Wright 2-0-18-0, M H Yardy 8-0-42-1.
Runs 6s 4s Bls
* A J Strauss b Gul 57 0 8 54
S M Davies b Razzaq 18 0 3 18
I J L Trott b Akhtar 2 0 0 10
R S Bopara c Akmal b Ajmal 7 0 1 15
E J G Morgan c sub b Gul 61 0 6 74
M H Yardy lbw b Gul 4 0 0 9
L J Wright not out 48 0 4 66
T T Bresnan b Gul 0 0 0 3
S C J Broad b Gul 4 0 0 7
G P Swann c Afridi b Gul0008
J M Anderson b Razzaq 3 0 0 10
Extras (lb 6, w 8) 14
Total (45.4 overs) 218
Fall: 1-35, 2-42, 3-77, 4-95, 5-103, 6-201, 7-201, 8-207, 9-211, 10-218.
Bowling: S Akhtar 10-0-43-1, A Razzaq 7.4-0-38-2, U Gul 10-0-42-6, S Ajmal 9-0-42-1, S S M K Afridi 9-0-47-0.
Umpires: B R Doctrove & R K Illingworth.