Sunday 25 February 2018

Cricket: Prior century helps leave Pakistan grasping thin air

Scyld Berry at Trent Bridge

It is the equivalent of the devil and the deep blue sea. Pakistan are caught between leaden skies and what has become a most uneven pitch, with nowhere left to turn, except to Edgbaston with a 1-0 deficit.

Under the leaden skies the ball has swung throughout, except during the double-century stand between Paul Collingwood and Eoin Morgan which has shaped this match. For the rest of the game, the moving ball has been too much for all the specialist batsmen -- and for Kamran Akmal, Pakistan's wicketkeeper, who has grasped at times at thin air.

Apart from that England stand of 219, the only two players to reach 50 in this game have been the Pakistani tailender Umar Gul and England's wicketkeeper-batsman Matt Prior, who went on to his third Test century.

When the ball has been soft -- not hard and shiny -- run-scoring has been feasible, but only then. And all the while the pitch has dried and cracked and made odd balls keep low. Cosmetic surgery has been tried in Test cricket -- and we are not talking about famous players who suddenly seem younger after they have given up playing, but a Melbourne Test of the 1950s when a cracking pitch was illicitly watered on the rest day. But assuming no such surgery, Pakistan will be scuttled today by balls keeping low if not by those that swing.

Gul's hitting took Pakistan to and past the follow-on target and compelled England to bat again on a morning made for swing bowling (the floodlights stayed on all day, although there was evening sunshine). The rumour was that England would have batted a second time in any event, which was surprising: Pakistan's batsmen are the same colour as their national flag when it comes to Test experience. All their Test centuries number fewer than Andrew Strauss's or Kevin Pietersen's.

But the rapidly deteriorating nature of the pitch made Strauss's decision to bat a second time a tenable one; and there are, in truth, several ways to skin a cat that has become emaciated for lack of care and is not able to enjoy the lap of luxury at home.

Gul's innings was remarkable for the three sixes he pulled off Steve Finn yesterday in addition to one off James Anderson on Friday evening. It was the first time that Finn had been mauled -- his two overs in the morning cost 30 -- such a learner is unlikely to drop short in Pakistan's second innings.

One of the chances which Akmal the keeper accepted -- he missed two catches and a stumping -- came with fraternal assistance, when his younger brother Umal spooned a slip catch towards the keeper. It made Strauss's 11th duck, but England's first innings lead had been 172 so it was no crisis, which is when he tends to make his second innings runs.

The sense in which Strauss's opening partner, Alastair Cook, was most unlucky is debatable. It is cruel to be caught down the legside flicking at a wide ball; and it is cruel to be caught by Kamran Akmal, without the ball bouncing first off a fellow fielder or off the ground.

Already it seems that the two Mohammads, Asif and Aamer, are running out of puff -- and reasonably enough as this is their third Test in as many weeks. But they would have to bowl less if their keeper and slip fielders clung on to more chances.

Cook's wicket was Asif's 100th in Tests, taken with as poor a ball as he can have bowled. But Asif's average of 23 in this day and age bears testimony to his craftsmanship -- and he has not bowled against Bangladesh.

When he has practised reverse-swing, Asif has flicked the ball's seam over to confuse the batsman while in his delivery stride, an astonishing sleight of hand.

Gul for once this summer pulled his weight as a bowler by pitching the ball up and dismissing England's middle order -- Trott with a ball that kept low, and Pietersen with a brilliant catch off the inside edge by the keeper Akmal to his left, with the aid of some webbing. Collingwood had to wait until he missed a pull but he would have gone first ball if Akmal had clung to a regulation catch at this level.

Prior had to atone for his part in running out Morgan, having been run out himself in his first innings. He took a long time to adjust to the slow pace of this pitch which has made driving so awkward, but eventually he recalibrated, while Swann and Broad opened up the game at the other end with their hitting. Australian observers, however, will have noted how Swann went off the boil as a batsman immediately after he had been hit by a bouncer from Gul. As soon as he had been hit on the back of the head by a straight ball, Swann missed one from Danish Kaneria.

Tony Hill, the promising New Zealand umpire (not many of those), at first gave Swann not out, but Pakistan asked for his decision to be reviewed, successfully. Hill had enjoyed such a fine game to this point that no aspersion was cast on his reputation.

Prior opened up when Finn joined him, hitting two sixes in three balls off Kaneria, and then took a single off the first ball of an over seven times, leaving Finn to use his ample common sense and self-restraint.

But Prior on 99 cut an offbreak for three and prompted the declaration, setting Pakistan a theoretical 435 to win. Although it did not profit England in their second innings to play six batsmen, it did so in their first. In any event, there is a world between pursuing the policy in bowling conditions, like Trent Bridge in this match, and in batting conditions like Australia, where the heat and the pitches and the balls are so very different. And now is too late to pursue it.


Sunday Independent

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