WHETHER it was by design or triggered by unfortunate circumstance, England’s change of tack in Abu Dhabi may well prove to be the turning point in another tantalisingly poised series involving Andrew Strauss’s box office side.
Last minute U-turns based on instinct are far from the modus operandi of an England regime built on meticulous preparation and studious analysis.
But the call to reinstate wild card Monty Panesar, rather than select Steven Finn as a ready made replacement for the stricken Chris Tremlett, dispelled the notion that head coach Andy Flower had become too set in his ways.
Panesar bowled with impressive control in tandem with Graeme Swann, as England were rewarded for gambling on a four-man attack comprised of two seamers and two spinners for the first time in nine years.
The 30-year-old, winning his 40th Test cap and first since the summer of 2009, displayed understandable nerves early on and when, with a hint of nostalgic familiarity, he dropped a simple return catch off Mohammad Hafeez in his eighth over, Flower must have wondered whether he had made the right call.
The Zimbabwean need not have doubted his own judgement – the very next delivery saw Hafeez, who had battled his way to 31, play back to a quicker ball and lose his off bail.
Panesar bowled 33 overs and 15 more than Swann, who took 3-52 as part of a tremendous all-round bowling effort which reduced Pakistan to 256-7, underlining the confidence his captain had in his ability.
“From my end there was a bit of turn and we also had the right-hand batsmen in, so the ball turning away helped,” left-armer Panesar explained. “Trying to get the right pace for the wicket was the key. It is a slow wicket, you don’t want the batsmen to be able to hang back and cut you easily – but you want to draw them forward as well, so you have to vary it and keep them guessing.”
The history, albeit one limited to two matches, of the Sheikh Zayed Stadium suggested England’s bowlers would be spending a considerable chunk of this match out in the middle when Strauss lost the toss.
But after mastering the kookaburra ball in Australia last winter, pacemen James Anderson and Stuart Broad enhanced their reputations as men for all seasons by posing problems on a pitch already regarded as something of a bowlers’ graveyard.
Broad’s hostility yielded figures of 3-23, while Anderson was unlucky to end wicketless from 18 overs, but this was by no means a return to the virtually fault-free cricket England showcased last summer.
Four chances went begging – one an inexplicable drop at slip by Strauss off Anderson – but undeniable progress has been made since last week’s horror show in Dubai.
Now it is up to England’s batsmen to follow the template set by Pakistan’s limpet-like skipper Misbah-ul-Haq, unbeaten on 82 overnight, and demonstrate that 10-wicket defeat is fully out of their system.
Day 1: Pakistan 256-7
The Toss: Strauss calls wrong and Misbah decides Pakistan will bat first. Panesar replaces the injured Tremlett for England
18.3 Overs: Taufeeq shoulders arms to a quicker Swann delivery and sees his off stump uprooted
23.5 Overs: Hafeez, like his opening partner, misjudges an arm ball and is clean bowled by Panesar
36.2 Overs: More stump carnage as Broad gets one to sneak through the defences of Younes, who was playing horribly across the line
40.2 Overs: Broad homes in on Ali’s timbers and the furniture of a Pakistan batsmen is disturbed for a fourth time
78.6 Overs: Shafiq aims to hit Swann out of the ground and into the surrouding desert. He looks far from clever when given out LBW on review
85.6 Overs: Akmal is sent packing by Broad who traps him leg before. The batsman appeared to get a thin edge but the ball looped up to wicketkeeper Matt Prior in any case
92.1 Overs: Rehman becomes the fifth Pakistani batsman of the day to be clean bowled as Swann picks up his third wicket