England face a lethal twist

Simon O'Hagan studies the threat that the bowling of Waqar and Wasim will pose
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The Independent Online
Like one of Waqar Younis's inswinging yorkers, England's summer threatens some late, nasty surprises. And it is clearly in the area of bowling that the difference in quality between England and Pakistan is most marked.

That England's opening pair of Chris Lewis and Dominic Cork are, on the face of it, no match for Waqar and Wasim Akram is nothing for them to be ashamed about. Most people in cricket - save perhaps Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh - agree that the Pakistani duo has long been the most talented and fearsome new-ball partnership in the world. And they are not too bad with the old ball, either.

If one is prepared to peer through the clouds of controversy that surrounded the ball- tampering series of 1992, it is worth remembering the extent to which Waqar and Wasim's combination of hostility and skill destroyed England's batsmen. Between them they took 43 of the 71 England wickets to fall, of which, as Jack Bannister noted in the 1993 Wisden, 26 were bowled or leg before and another 14 caught in the arc from wicketkeeper to gully.

Four years on, Waqar's ankle-seeking missiles have helped give him a better average than any other established active Test bowler, fast or slow: 200 wickets in 37 matches at 20.61, just ahead of Ambrose, who has taken 266 wickets in 59 matches at 21.29. Combine Waqar with the left- arm boomerangs of Wasim, who has a record of 289 wickets in 67 matches at 22.57, and you have an attack whose powers shown no sign of diminishing.

The South African Allan Donald, one of the few fast bowlers in the world who bears comparison, believes there are measures batsmen can try to take against them, but success is always likely to be limited. "Basically, they're lethal," Donald said last week at Edgbaston.

Reverse swing, Donald explained, was the big problem the batsmen faced. Virtually patented by the two Pakistanis, reverse swing means, in the case of the right-arm Waqar, a ball bowled with a slingier, slightly more round-arm than normal action which begins by moving away from the right- handed batsman before ducking back into him, very late and very fast. Wasim creates a similar effect bowling round the wicket with a ball that moves in and then away. The most remarkable aspect of this effect is that Wasim and Waqar manage to achieve it with the old rather than the new ball.

"We played Pakistan in the World Cup and talked a lot about how to combat it," Donald said. "If the ball is swinging in late, I think the answer might be for the right-hander to stand outside leg stump, back in the crease, let it swing and then play it from there."

Of the two, it is Waqar who really impresses Donald. "He's one of those guys you never see coming in at half-pace. He runs in hard at you, which as a batter is always a bit frightening. And he's got such magnificent control." Mohammad Akram, a potential third seamer, has also caught Donald's eye. "I think he might just be the surprise packet. He reminds me of Ian Bishop. He's got a lovely action, more of a length man than Waqar or Wasim, probably hits the deck harder than either of them. He hurries you."

In the absence of much real firepower beyond Chris Lewis, Donald strongly advocates the return of Devon Malcolm to the England bowling attack, a view inevitably coloured by the nine for 57 Malcolm took against South Africa in 1994. "He's still as quick as anyone," Donald said. But whether Ray Illingworth would be prepared to countenance that seems doubtful.

If a quick bowler is to replace one of the trio in possession - Lewis, Cork and Alan Mullally, then it will be Darren Gough, at the expense of Mullally, although there are doubts concerning Lewis's fitness. That would be a little hard on Mullally, who took wickets against India in spite of doing less with the ball than England would have liked. But if his strike rate were to drop at Lord's, where the First Test begins on Thursday, Gough would be a very strong contender to return for the Second Test, at his home ground of Headingley.

The spin question is more problematic. Min Patel's relative ineffectiveness against India has helped bring Phil Tufnell back into the reckoning, while the Sussex leg-spinner Ian Salisbury remains in favour. But the possible presence of as many as four left-handers in the Pakistan top six means that England should perhaps be looking more to an off-spinner. Peter Such, of Essex, has never enjoyed huge support from Illingworth, but he is the best around so long as there is no objection to having a genuine No11 in the side.

On the batting side, Nick Knight's 135 runs for once out against the Pakistanis last week were surely enough to put him ahead of Alec Stewart as Mike Atherton's opening partner, for all Stewart's solid work against India after Knight's injury let him in. And while Hick, in spite of his run of failures, is likely to be retained, the fine touch John Crawley has shown since returning from injury ought to earn him a place in the party, if only as cover for Nasser Hussain should the latter not have recovered from his finger injury.

Probable 13: Atherton, Knight, Hussain, Thorpe, Hick, Crawley, Ealham, Russell, Lewis, Cork, Mullally, Gough, Such.