If any lateral thought went into England's selection for Lord's, it was not discernible to the naked eye

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The Independent Online
Pakistan's opening bowlers, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, have been described in the past few days as the best new-ball pairing in the world. If this were true, they might not be so dangerous.

The best new-ball pair in the world are surely Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, of the West Indies. The second-best are probably Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock, of South Africa. Wasim and Waqar come in third (though you could make a case, without being entirely facetious, for Glenn McGrath and Paul Reiffel, the deceptively effective Australians).

It is not that the two Pakistanis are not great fast bowlers. It is just that their distin- guishing feature is an ability to bowl better with the old ball than the new ball. This turns the game on its head. For the spectator, it is excellent news. Those sleepy afternoons when the score is 200 for two are transformed into the sort of setting you find in the films of David Lynch, where every bright surface is just a portent of darkness, and any sense of security is a false one. Each boundary the umpire signals just brings the moment nearer when the ball begins to reverse swing, the wickets start to clatter and the toes begin to bruise.

For the opposition, it is not good news at all. When the bowlers get as much lateral movement as Wasim and Waqar, the batting side need to do some lateral thinking. This, by definition, is not something that comes naturally to any of us; least of all professional cricketers.

If any lateral thought went into England's selection for tomorrow's first Test at Lord's, it was not discernible to the naked eye. The squad was the team that played the third Test against India - minus Min Patel, plus Ian Salisbury, Nick Knight and Simon Brown. Knight and Brown appear to be on standby for Nasser Hussain and Chris Lewis, although it will not be a great surprise tomorrow if Lewis is fit and Brown sneaks in ahead of Alan Mullally.

The last time the selectors picked two similar players in a squad - Ronnie Irani and Mark Ealham at Trent Bridge - it looked like a tactful way of telling the one in possession that he had done well, but not so well that he was still the one in possession. Otherwise, it is stay as you are. After all the years of chopping and changing, this is good to see. Or is it? Pakistan pose a threat unlike that of any other country - especially India, who bowled well, if too short, with the new ball and then fell away badly.

Mike Atherton and David Lloyd know all there is to know about Wasim, and Alec Stewart, who is still, technically, England's vice-captain, yields to no one in his knowledge of Waqar. But I wonder if they have done their homework. Last time England played Pakistan was in 1992. The Pakistan line-up now is remarkably similar to what it was then. When it comes to a Test series in England, they have been here and won that.

What swung it for them was a single factor: Wasim and Waqar's proficiency with the old ball. It was a five-match series and there were two dull draws, in the first and third Tests. Pakistan won the second and fifth, and England won the fourth - at Headingley, where any old seamer can be a world-beater.

On the scorecards for those three Tests you can almost see the moment when the reverse swinging started. At Lord's, England subsided from 197 for three to 255 all out in the first innings, and then from 108 for two to 175 all out. At Headingley, 270 for one became 320 all out. At the Oval, 138 for two became 207 all out, and 153 for five became 174 all out.

The contribution made by England's bottom six in those matches went like this: 65 runs for 11 times out; two (yes, two) for six; and 48 for 11. Grand total: 115 runs from 28 completed innings. And just two not outs because the only players who could cope with the reverse swing were proper batsmen who were already set: Stewart, carrying his bat for 69 at Lord's; David Gower, stranded on 19 at Headingley; Robin Smith, 84 not out at the Oval.

There are two possible conclusions to be drawn. Either it is unrealistic to expect any runs from your lower order, and you are better off playing five batsmen, a wicketkeeper and your five best bowlers, irrespective of batting ability - in which case SOS calls had better go out this morning to Phil Tufnell and Devon Malcolm (who, the Independent on Sunday revealed, would be in Allan Donald's England team). Or you need to shuffle the order, making sure that there is grit, experience and high skill at No 6.

Smith would have been perfect for the job. Instead, it will go to Ealham, the plucky novice, or to Graeme Hick. He is still (just) England's regular No 5. If England play six batsmen tomorrow, he will be pushed down to No 6 - straight into the danger zone. For this series only, Hick should go up to No 4, or even No 3, above Hussain. Graham Thorpe, who is in the best form of his life, should be asked to hold the innings together at No 6. And if Knight plays, Stewart should drop down to No 5.

The chances of all this happening, it has to be said, are slim; which is one reason why, in my book, Pakistan are firm favourites.

Tim de Lisle is editor of 'Wisden Cricket Monthly'.

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