England scent commanding victory
Matt Prior extinguished all conceivable chance of Pakistan preventing an England victory in the first npower Test with a superb century.
When England’s number seven arrived in the middle at a gloomy Trent Bridge, Pakistan’s energetic fast bowlers were in complete control over a batting line-up struggling to come to terms with sharp movement in the air and occasional low bounce.
Prior passed that examination to impose his will upon Pakistan’s beleaguered and overused leg-spinner, Danish Kaneria, and massage England’s advantage to 434, which will surely prove far beyond the tourists’ inexperienced batting tomorrow.
Andrew Strauss declared upon Prior registering his third Test hundred, at 262 for nine, leaving England around half an hour and the two remaining days to take a series lead.
In the seven overs possible in Pakistan’s second innings, James Anderson and Stuart Broad shot out three wickets in the space of six balls. At the close, the tourists were still 420 adrift of their nominal target of 435.
Indeed, with England's pursuit of 284 the highest successful run-chase in Test matches here, even the finest batsmen produced in Pakistan's history would be unlikely to make that.
Salman Butt capped a torrid game with the bat, flashing loosely at Broad to be well held by third slip Paul Collingwood.
Newcomers Azhar Ali and Umar Amin were both trapped on the crease, and nightwatchman Mohammad Aamer barely survived the 11 balls he faced.
To their great credit, the tourists threw all they could muster at England when play began under leaden skies in West Bridgford. The beaming floodlights ensured play was underway on schedule, and they remained on all day.
Pakistan needed eight runs from their first innings to prevent being asked to follow-on, admittedly a move Strauss seemed unlikely to entertain.
The debate was rendered academic by Umar Gul’s unbeaten 65, his maiden Test half-century, which kicked off a memorable day for the fast bowler.
The Pakistan number nine scored 35 runs in four overs, all but one in boundaries. Three times he hooked a mistakenly short Steven Finn into the Fox Road Stand.
The prospect of any lasting damage only ended when Mohammad Asif came wandering down to try and secure Gul the strike for Anderson’s next over.
Cover fielder Eoin Morgan swivelled to calmly throw down the non-striker’s stumps, closing the innings at 182, a 172-run first-innings lead for England.
The crowd was then treated to expert swing bowling by Asif, Aamer and Gul, who regularly had the ball flashing past outside edges.
Aamer continued his habit of striking in the first over of an innings when he tempted Strauss to nibble outside off stump. Second slip Umar Akmal spilled the catch, but had the presence of mind to punch the ball up in the manner of a volleyball player, allowing brother Kamran to dive alertly forward and take the catch.
Alastair Cook gritted his teeth before being strangled somewhat cruelly down the leg side. It was Asif's 100th Test wicket, and only Waqar Younis among Pakistanis has reached the landmark as quickly.
The out-of-touch Kevin Pietersen entered the fray at 18 for two. Thankfully for England, he and Jonathan Trott knuckled down by adding 31 to lunch.
A couple of instances suggested Pietersen was primed to play a significant innings for himself and England; a straight drive off Gul particularly stuck in the mind.
Pietersen was on 22 when he received a pearler from the rejuvenated Gul, spearing back and taking his inside edge. Kamran belied his general lack of confidence by diving far to his left and holding an outstanding one-handed catch.
Just when he seemed to be redeeming his first-day gaffes, Kamran was back to his old tricks the very next ball, unable to get both gloves to Collingwood’s lazy prod outside off stump.
Gul was rewarded in his next over, when a back-of-a-length delivery kept disconcertingly low and castled Trott, unwisely playing back.
Gul’s third wicket was more contentious. Collingwood was struck high on the pad, and given out by umpire Tony Hill.
Collingwood dutifully walked off, after a considerable time deliberating with his partner Eoin Morgan, though with Gul very close to overstepping he may have been reprieved had he chosen to review.
With three wickets going down for seven runs, first-innings centurion Morgan offered brief but important solidity with a sensible 17.
His innings ended regrettably when a mix-up with Prior between the wickets, his second of the match, had Morgan scurrying back to the non-striker’s end too late.
As if to remind England that their position remained formidable, Graeme Swann responded by freeing his arms with belligerent strokes.
Swann took a blow from Gul on the helmet for his troubles, but emerged after tea to launch a six over long-on.
Pakistan made their first wise use of the decision review system in this game when Kaneria inquired about an lbw shout against Swann, with the partnership on 49. It never would have been given out 10 years ago, but the bowler was proved correct on TV replay.
With spin now deployed from both ends, Broad contributed 24, an important innings for him personally. Shoaib Malik claimed him and then Anderson cheaply, at which point Prior was on a mere 63.
But Finn showed unforeseen resilience in negotiating 50 balls to see his senior partner through to a century. Seven times Prior took a single from the first ball of an over, causing the last man to block out.
Prior ended his long wait from his 136th ball, cutting Malik behind point for a scampered three. He was still savouring his first hundred since Port of Spain last year when Strauss waved the last pair in.
This terrific Test has been that rare beauty, where top-class swing bowling has held sway and caused batsmen to banish thoughts of attack and concentrate on survival. In the light of that, Prior may reflect that this was one of his finest innings.