"We've reached the stage where we are good at fighting rearguard actions," the England coach, David Lloyd, said. "Now, though, we have to learn to get into winning positions." Which, roughly translated, means: we've got to discover how to bowl sides out twice regularly.
Yesterday, however, the decision-makers still appeared split over the best way to achieve this, and, in particular, how many spinners to play. Lloyd appeared to favour four seamers and Ian Salisbury, while Atherton fancied playing both Salisbury and Robert Croft, alongside a three-pronged pace attack - probably without Lewis, who bowled poorly at Headingley.
No doubt Ray Illingworth's input was sought as he turned up for his final team dinner, and there is a feeling that whatever combination of bowlers England end up with this morning, the chairman's farewell mark will be on it. With the six batsmen from Headingley certain to play, the pitch, open to the morning sun before being covered, adds to the conundrum. According to Lloyd, it was hard, dry and brown on Monday. Alec Stewart confirmed that assertion when he said it was the firmest he had seen at The Oval this season.
Yesterday it was taking a stud and was tinged with green, suggesting that it has been heavily watered. This can mean one of two things: either it is too dry and the groundsman is trying to retain moisture to stop the top crumbling too quickly (which would explain why it was covered under a hot sun yesterday), or he is trying to green the pitch up to suit England's seamers - a ploy that backfired at Headingley.
What favours the initial thesis - that the pitch is too dry and would suit spin - was Atherton's suggestion that he would bat first, should he win the toss. Unless there is a lot of kidology going on between the Lancashire players of both camps, England will be forsaking a traditional area of strength (seam bowling) to play both spinners. If so, they are certain to be outbowled should Pakistan follow suit and play the Mushtaqs: Saqlain and Ahmed. Ten years ago, this would have been the norm, but such has been the profusion of top-quality fast bowlers in Pakistan that the inclusion of the in-form Mohammed Akram in place of Ata-ur-Rehman is more likely. More controversially, the visitors were talking of leaving out the wicketkeeper Moin Khan after his hundred at Headingley. If they do, Rashid Latif will play largely because his batting, like that of Aamir Sohail, is unlikely to be fazed by pitches with bounce.
One of the travesties of playing a talented team like Pakistan over a three-match series is that many have yet to see Saqlain in action. Off- spinners are a rare breed in Test cricket these days, their inability to take wickets stemming from a combination of improved technique and a lack of pitches allowing the bounce and turn necessary for them to pull their weight.
Saqlain, though, is something special and can apparently turn it on glass. He also possesses a ball that kicks away from the right-handed batsman off the pitch, which may explain why he gets so many of his victims caught at slip. And no less an authority than Steve Waugh pronounced him "the best spinner I've faced in a while" during Pakistan's visit to Australia last winter.
Four years ago on this ground, however, England were blown away inside four days, Wasim and Waqar sharing 15 wickets between them as extravagant reverse swing swiftly removed England's middle and late orders. Wasim, who took 9 for 103 in the match, needs another six Test wickets to become the 11th member to join the illustrious 300 club. He may find the unusually lush outfield and showery forecast a hindrance towards achieving such lavish swing this time. Yet if Pakistan's bowling remains a potent threat, their batting remains brittle - susceptible to mood swings that veer from moments of irrational panic to bouts of over-confidence.
"Their batters are very 'get-outable', especially the way they play," Lloyd said yesterday as he made light of Atherton's third failure in a row to secure the Duke ball for his bowlers.
But if the captain shrugged this off with a sniping "it's round and it's red, and someone's got to bowl with it", he can console himself with the news that three of his four pace bowlers - Mullally, Caddick and Lewis - have all had a break since the last Test. But that is a situation that does not necessarily come with a guarantee, as Graeme Hick knows only too well.Reuse content