Two months later... and the Ashes seem a long time ago

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The Independent Online

Seventy-four days ago England reclaimed the Ashes. When they were 20 for 4 in the heat of the afternoon sun yesterday with three of their top four batsmen having failed to score a run and one of the world's great speed merchants bowling like the wind, it seemed like another lifetime.

Through a combination of application, bloody-mindedness, time-wasting, a pitch still holding its own, the fact that Shoaib Akhtar got tired and bad light, they earned the draw they sought to keep the three-match series alive. But Pakistan are dormie one, and England are in serious danger of losing their first series in seven and only their fifth in the last 24. Two of those defeats were against Australia (remember those days when England used to lose to Australia). The others have been on the sub-continent, to India and Sri Lanka on their most recent visits. Only Bangladesh have been dealt with.

They have not become a poor team overnight - nor even in 74 days - but the state of play here, alongside those previous results this decade, merely reflects the difficulties of winning in these parts.

It is what makes England's failure to chase 198 to win in Multan a week ago so culpable. If the pitches are not dead, they need to have the life either beaten (as Shoaib did in such exemplary style briefly yesterday) or wheedled out of them. That is more difficult in extreme temperatures and alien conditions.

Nobody should write off England, given the holes from which they have dug themselves in the past three years, but nobody should be writing them up too much either, given their record in the subcontinent. For one player especially, this series and this match will be both memorable and forgettable.

When Pakistan were 241 for 8 and Inzamam-ul-Haq was 79, England had the faintest sniff of winning to level the series. Inzamam, hitting in the air to mid-wicket, was dropped by on the boundary by Andrew Strauss, as straightforward a chance as they come.

Strauss made such a mess of it that he could have been having a baby at the same time. And there was the point. It is not Strauss who is giving birth but his wife, Ruth. Their first child is due on Monday and Strauss is flying home today to be there.

It was always his intention to leave the tour and he should be wished well. But his performances and departure raise once again the issue of paternity leave for professional sportsmen. It is a legitimate topic considering both the huge amount of money they earn in a peculiar job, and the fact that they put their positions in jeopardy more than other workers by spending voluntary time away.

Strauss has scored 44 runs in four innings in the Tests, reducing his average from above 50 to 46. In addition to the horrendous Inzamam drop yesterday he put down an elementary chance close to the wicket late in Pakistan's first innings when Shoaib Akhtar prodded at Ashley Giles' spin. Players make mistakes and Strauss has made fewer than most in a glittering start to an international career which has already yielded him seven hundreds. He was bound to have a bad run and when he was having his golden run all the pundits made that point.

It may be that this great occurrence in his life is not connected to his form. But nobody expected Strauss to make a run yesterday before he went to the crease (though it is true some were expected from the others). Of course, Strauss should be going home, the question is worth asking whether he should have come. Since there is no definitive answer it will continue to be asked.