Dubai: A monumental innings by Azhar Ali, a dutiful and occasionally becalmed affair spanning nearly nine hours, has left England requiring a daunting 324 for victory in the third Test. Azhar's highest first-class score, 157 from 442 balls, was an impressive feat of patience and skill and presented England with a final batting examination against Pakistan's spinners, a task they have flunked throughout the series.
England at least survived their initial reconnaissance. There were few devils in the 20 overs up to the close, although Alastair Cook was badly dropped in Umar Gul's second over by Taufeeq Umar at third slip. Pakistan also lost a review after Mohammad Hafeez's lbw appeal against Andrew Strauss was turned down.
For much of the third day, this was a drowsy Dubai Sunday. When the Test suddenly sprung into life before tea, with England's spinners taking the last seven wickets for 34 runs in 22.2 overs, England did not know whether to laugh or cry. As the ball began to turn and spit on a worn, dry surface, each wicket felt like the harbinger of the batting challenges to come.
Without Azhar's marathon effort, England might have had realistic ambitions of salvaging a consolation victory. Graeme Swann, who dropped him low down at first slip on 84 off James Anderson, will have felt more disconsolate than most. Azhar finally fell to Swann at short leg. Cook has stood there throughout the series without so much as a sniff, but he held a low catch to end an innings that had pronounced Azhar as a young batsman of high calibre.
Younis Khan added only 12 to his overnight 115 before he fell lbw to the deserving Stuart Broad, but Azhar followed up Younis' hundred with one of his own. He resumed on 75 and pressed on doggedly. His first boundary of the morning, a delicate sweep against Graeme Swann took him to 98 before he unleashed a resounding square cut against Monty Panesar to reach his second Test century.
As the lead crept ahead, so did the lbws. Five Pakistan batsmen fell to leg before decisions, four to Panesar. That took the total to 41 in the series and counting. It is a record for a three-Test series and only two below the overall record.
Panesar finished with another five wickets, his reputation rebuilt and aching limbs. Much of the afternoon had been a stalemate as Panesar persevered into the rough outside Misbah-ul-Haq's leg stump, and Misbah appeared immovable. England tossed away their second review in desperation as Misbah survived Panesar's lbw appeal by virtue of a thin inside edge. But he fell that way eventually, as he has five times in the series, his own review failing to spare him.
Panesar then prospered. Asad Shafiq was lbw on the back leg, sweeping, and Adnan Akmal was bowled for nought by one that turned. Panesar's celebrations, once so excitable, are now so strangely matter-of-fact that perhaps it is time to take a look in the doctor's medical bag.
When Swann removed Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal courtesy of slip catches by James Anderson - the second one a cracking effort, a steer to his right from Ajmal that he anticipated brilliantly - it brought Swann rare satisfaction and served only to deepen England's sense of foreboding.
It has been a tough series for Swann. He has a great career record against Pakistan left-handers, but there are only two of them in this series and Taufeeq has often been dismissed before he has come on. Swann has been largely overshadowed as he has remained loyal to the methods that have served him well, flight and a line outside off stump, while other spinners have bowled straighter and quicker in a rewarding search for lbws.
Pakistan were threatening to defy cricket history. No side in 105 years has won after making fewer than 100 in the first innings of a Test, a feat last achieved by England against South Africa at Headingley in 1907.
Even that achievement required assistance from the elements. Colin Blythe, the revered Kent left-arm spinner, loved nothing better than a wet pitch and he took 15 wickets as Leeds drizzled loyally upon him. There was little point in Panesar and Swann gazing to the heavens in the hope of a sudden downpour, not in these parts.
Early in the day, umpire Steve Davis' lbw decision against Younis was upheld on review, but it was the most marginal of calls, as was Kevin Pietersen's on the opening day, and emphasised that the umpires in this series have been emboldened by DRS into giving borderline decisions that they might normally have turned down. The umpires' margin of error that is built into DRS meant that on both occasions the umpire would have been right whatever he ruled. Both Younis and Pietersen were adjudged to be out when Hawk-Eye predicted that the ball would have shaved the stumps so lightly that the bail might not even have fallen. The umpires have all become outers.
The best umpires throughout the years tended before the advent of DRS to allow a small margin of error in favour of the batsman, judging that a not-out decision was the safest if there was an element of doubt. Hawk-Eye has not only removed that doubt, and the inbuilt margin of error, intended to protect the umpire's authority, has meant in this series that batsmen have, in effect, defended bigger stumps - taller by the width of a ball, and wider by the width of a ball on both stumps. It is a concern, but it is no reason to abandon the system.