Stephen Brenkley: Woolmer promises England no respite

After the Ashes » Pakistan captain and coach in harmony and plotting to make life gruelling for the top tourists
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The Independent Online

They can only trust that the sheer ecstasy of reclaiming the greatest prize in the game will help to sustain them in the exacting times ahead. They will need it.

The two bombs that killed six people in Lahore, venue for the Third Test, on Thursday will not have made any of the players more comfortable about the tour. The alien conditions and polluted towns will be more easily managed than the high-level security ("presidential-style," it is said) round the clock which will make individual freedom of movement impossible. They will be safe, but they will be entitled to wonder if sport is worth it in such conditions.

The Pakistan authorities will certainly do everything in their power to ease their guests' passage. The country's hospitality on England's last tour five years ago was peerless. England will travel as a changed team, both in their own outlook and other sides' perceptions of them.

Pakistan would have been desperate to prevail as it was, having suffered an infamous 1-0 defeat in the last, pitch-black hour of the series at Karachi in 2000. But now they will see it as a gilt-edged opportunity to topple the team who toppled the world champions and thus become, yes, the champs themselves.

"I don't subscribe to that thought, it's just a trick," said Bob Woolmer, Pakistan's coach. "If we are to beat England in the Tests we have to play out of our skins. But I actually don't know my side that well. I've been here a year and they keep surprising me, so... They are definitely 180 per cent fitter than they were. And I look at the England team and I think, how do I actually build them back up in a month?

"Barely a month after the Australians they're having to cope with another tour, and I know mentally what English cricketers can be like. They think sometimes, 'Oh God, here we have to go again', and it's not going to be easy. Pakistan has its own difficulties, it's not easy to wander round. Security will be absolutely tight, we've got Australia A here at the moment and they're hemmed in."

Under Woolmer, Pakistan have definitely made some progress, and his relaxed personality has helped him to make light of the internecine politics that afflict the cricket administration. Humiliated in Australia last winter, Pakistan managed to draw a series in India before taking another step backwards by losing a Test to a weak West Indies.

Woolmer has had trouble identifying his best team, almost certainly some more trouble persuading others what it might be, and trouble getting along with the country's premier (at least in terms of pace) fast bowler, Shoaib Akhtar. But he has found an unlikely soul-mate in the national captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and their partnership may yet surprise England.

"I know what I want to happen and I just need the players to help me," Wool-mer said. "I get on very well with Inzy, he is a very wise person and I have learned a lot from him and the way he does things. I think we have one of the most enlightened contracts systems in the world, where players get paid according to how many times they have played for the country, and that is his baby. I hope we have a mutual respect and we share everything."

Sounds promising. Between them, Woolmer and Inzamam have to plot a strategy to beat England. (Pakistan will start as clear favourites in the one-day series, which will be watched by 20 times more people than the Test series.)

It is probably best to ignore the recent suggestions that Pakistan will rely on spin, spin and more spin. Mushtaq Ahmed may well have been recalled to the training camp, but at 35, having played only two Tests in the past four years, it is difficult to envisage a recall to the starting line-up. But it would be no bad thing for Danish Kaneria, the side's current leg-spinner, to look to his laurels with Mushtaq around.

More likely, Woolmer will want his attack to be based largely on pace. Reverse swing, which had to become second nature to Pakistan bowlers if they were to extract anything from the conditions, may play a part, but Woolmer remains unconvinced that the Kookaburra ball to be used in the series will allow much of it. His difficulties with Shoaib have not been resolved, and it is an open secret that he thinks highly of several other less speedy bowlers who are less of a handful to manage.

"He doesn't always do what we want him to do physically. His family and mates have accused me of trying to ruin his career, but why would I want to do that when he could be my number one asset?" Woolmer argues.

But Woolmer long ago worked out that bowlers, fast or slow, are only the support staff. "All Test series are about batting. If you put the opposition under pressure with a lot of runs it's easier for the bowler. Defending 320 you won't bowl that well; defending 450 to 500 you will bowl better, because you've got more chance. Runs are the bottom line, and that's where we're weak. We've got prolific batsmen but we need to get some openers to start them off."

He was thinking that if they find them, England could yet be finished off.