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23.05.2018 15:55
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Pakistanis 359 for 8 dec (Younis 104, Shafiq 80, Masood 62, van Meekeren 3-78) and 140 for 4 (Azhar 50*) lead Somerset 128 (Hildreth 47, Sohail 3-26, Amir 3-36) by 371 runs ScorecardIf there were any doubts about Mohammad Amirs preparedness for a return to Test cricket, he has gone a long way towards dispelling them in Taunton with an incisive spell of top-class swing bowling.Amir claimed three top-order wickets in a performance that demonstrated sharp pace, even sharper movement and impressive control to suggest that, whatever else has happened since the last time we saw him bowl in England, his extravagant skills remain undimmed.Such is notoriety surrounding Amir - his talent as much as his fall from grace - that it might be forgotten that he goes into this tour with much to prove. This was his first first-class game of the year and only his fifth in almost six years. The last time he played at the top level he was just 18. Amir child, if you will. He has questions to answer, to himself as much as anyone, about his stamina, fitness and ability to block out the distractions and overcome the challenges that await.And it is true he may face tougher opposition and more hostile environments than he faced here. At Taunton he was greeted with warm applause when it was announced he was to bowl - it was never likely to be any other way - and then confronted by two top-order batsmen as green as The Quantocks and one who seems to have been around as long as them.But it is doubtful it would have mattered who was at the other end. The delivery that accounted for Marcus Trescothick, a beauty on off stump that demanded a stroke before swinging away late to take the edge of his bat, would have troubled any left-handed batsman in any era. Alastair Cook faces quite a challenge this summer.And while the doubters might suggest a more experienced player than Adam Hose - on first-class debut - might have kept out the ball that brought Amir his next wicket, its worth noting that Hose is only a year younger than Amir. Having played pretty well for half-an-hour, Hose saw Amir go round the wicket and swing one back in sharply to take his off stump. He will never have faced bowing of such quality and he may never again after this match. This was a desperately tough baptism.But the best delivery of the lot was reserved for Peter Trego. Back over the wicket, Amir pitched the ball just outside off stump and persuaded it to swing back, through the gate and send Tregos middle stump cartwheeling. It was, by any standards, beautiful bowling. And, on a benign pitch offering him little, suggested he could prove devastating if England gamble with the sort of surfaces they utilised so effectively against Australia last year.He swung the ball really late, Trescothick said. You get a lot of bowlers who swing it quite early but he was swinging it late. That bit of extra pace is the thing. He hasnt played international cricket for a number of years so theres probably an extra bit of zip that he has that makes him hard work. As it was coming down the pitch you were almost guessing whether it was an inswinger or whether it was one of the straight ones.On that performance, yes, he will cause problems for England.Amirs day had started less happily. His first delivery as a batsman was called as a no-ball, the cue for somewhat awkward laughter on and off the pitch, while the next took his edge on the way to the keeper.But it is not his batting that will decide the Test series. It is Amir detail, if you like. It is his bowling. And on the evidence of this performance, it is in fine shape.He bowled an incredible spell, his team-mate Shan Massod said. We have no doubts about his talent. Weve seen it before and were seeing it again. He hasnt lost it. If anything, he has just got better.Massod was also keen to point out the ability of the rest of this Pakistan attack. And it is true that Sohail Khan, in particular, impressed with a three-wicket haul of his own. With an action just a little reminiscent of Waqar Younis, he had Tim Rouse - another Somerset debutant - edging one that left him, while Yasir Shah proved too good for the tail. Dominic Bess, the 18-year-old first-class debut, left a straight one that hit his off stump.James Hildreth, undefeated on 47, offered the only meaningful resistance. While he was reprieved on 13, he did show the resolve and technique to justify the locals argument that he should be featuring strongly in national selection meetings at present. The counter argument suggests he is not comfortable against the short ball and has an average artificially boosted by playing his home games on Tauntons batting-friendly surface. But 38 first-class centuries and an average of nearly 45 makes a compelling case. Had he been given a little more support here, he might have made an even stronger one. The fact that no selectors were in evidence does not bode well for him.It all meant Pakistan took a first innings lead of 231. But there was no thought of enforcing the follow-on. This game is about gaining the maximum amount of practice rather than the result. Besides, with Azhar Ali stretching the lead close to 400 by the close, they may well still have time to wrap-up victory on the final day. You might even call it Amir formality.The only cloud on Pakistans horizon concerns the form of their captain. After his second ball duck in the first innings, Misbah-ul-Haq fell for 19 in the second innings and dropped a tough chance off Hildreth in the slips. It is too early to read much into such issues, but Misbah is asking a great deal of himself to negate a skilful England bowling attack on their own surfaces at the age of 42.Perhaps he was a little unfortunate here. He made decent contact on a reverse sweep only to see the slip fielder Trescothick, only two years younger than Misbah, anticipate the stroke, move to his right and take a fine catch.Mohammad Hafeez also delayed his departure just a little too long after he was given out caught behind. It makes no difference whether Hafeez edged the ball or not - replays were inconclusive - as a senior player, he must know there is no benefit in head-shaking, shrugging or complaining. It wasnt by any means a serious incident - and certainly no worse than a few we have seen involving Englands seamers in recent years - but, on a tour that will be scrutinised closely, it was the sort of moment Pakistan could do without.Such is the trepidation in the Pakistan camp about what this tour may bring, they have hired a PR consultant from the world of politics to accompany them and largely protect Amir from the media. But, even if there are those who begrudge Amir his chance to make amends - those who, presumably, have never made a mistake in their lives - there will surely be very few true cricket lovers who can remain hard-hearted in the face of such precious skills. Bowlers so gifted appear rarely; Test cricket can only be enhanced by his return.The vast majority of England spectators will surely recognise both the rare skill and the fact that he has served his punishment. This has been a pleasing few days for Pakistan and for cricket. 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