Oval but not out for England
by AFP

Ground:Kennington Oval, Kennington
Event:Pakistan in British Isles 2006

DateLine: 16th August 2006


With the Oval Test always the last of an English cricket season, there have been many occasions in the past when a new player has been drafted in with the series lost in the belief that there's nothing to lose.


But the climax to the current series between England and Pakistan which gets underway at the south London venue on Thursday departs from the familiar formula in that it is the tourists, not the hosts, who are set to make changes.


England, 2-0 up in the four-match series after victories by an innings and 120 runs and 167 runs at Old Trafford and Headingley respectively, are set to field an unaltered side, having won a Test campaign for the first time since last year's Ashes success.


Pakistan, in the ongoing absence of Shoaib Malik, are set to try their fourth opening partnership in as many matches with Mohammad Hafeez, out of Test cricket for nearly three years and one of several late additions to the squad, in line to partner Imran Farhat at the top of the innings.


There is no denying the quality of a middle-order which reads Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq.


But so fallible have Pakistan's various opening combinations proved against an England attack missing Ashes stars Andrew Flintoff and Simon Jones, as well as the guiding hand of Ashes winning captain Michael Vaughan, that Hafeez - who made 180 against Australia A last month and can also bowl off-spin - is now going to get his chance to prove he can succeed where the likes of Salman Butt, Taufeeq Umar and Kamran Akmal have failed.


However, Pakistan fans will rightly point out that when it comes to bowling injuries their side has been the harder hit.


Pace trio Shoaib Akhtar, Naved and Mohammad Asif have missed all three Tests so far.


Their absence has left Pakistan short of a cutting edge.


Umar Gul has persevered well but Mohammad Sami, a few lively overs at Headingley excepted, has had a mediocre tour.


And with leg-spinner Danish Kaneria being repeatedly outbowled by England slow left-armer Monty Panesar, Pakistan's bowlers have struggled to impose themselves.


On Tuesday, Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer ruled Akhtar (left ankle) out of the match.


Nevertheless, Woolmer was keen to preserve a semblance of optimism by saying of Asif (elbow) and Naved (groin): "They have to be in contention. But Shoaib will not play."


And of Hafeez, he added: "He played extremely well in Australia and was going to fit into our one-day squad so it made sense to try to get him going."


For England, who last year sealed the Ashes with a draw at The Oval, the whole season has been viewed through the distorting prism of the tour of Australia starting in November.


Ian Bell may be on the verge of joining the late Ken Barrington as the only England batsman to have scored four hundreds in as many Tests but the weakness of Pakistan's attack will not have gone unnoticed by Australians who remember his Ashes struggles with Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne last year.


Pace bowler Sajid Mahmood, after his and England's humiliation during the 5-0 one-day series thrashing by Sri Lanka, took four for 22 in Pakistan's second innings at Headingley where he regularly hit the 90mph mark.


All of other England's Ashes replacements - No 3 batsman Alastair Cook (in for Vaughan), Panesar (in for the injured Ashley Giles) and wicket-keeper Chris Read (recalled at Headingley) have all shown their worth.


Meanwhile Andrew Strauss, who would not have been captain had either Vaughan (knee) or Flintoff (ankle) been fit, has grown in confidence as a leader with his use of Panesar as an attacking bowler.


One ongoing concern for England remains strike bowler Stephen Harmison, a cricketer of either feast or famine.


His six for 19 in the second Test showed what can happen when he is in the mood. The worry for England is that when circumstances are less than ideal, Harmison can be anonymous, unlike the greats who still find a way through.


For England though, greatness can wait. Remembering how to win Tests will do for now.

(Article: Copyright © 2006 AFP)


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