One ball. One wicket. That's how far away Pakistan were from establishing a match-winning and series-squaring position at Lords. Now only god or, more probably, rain can save them.
When Stuart Broad joined Jonathan Trott at the crease on Friday England were reeling at 102-7. If any one of the next, oh, 180 deliveries had dismissed either batsman England might have been dismissed for no more than 200 runs and Pakistan would have enjoyed every chance of forcing another improbable victory and, in so doing, levelling the series. Such are the margins between success and failure in test match cricket.
332 runs later Stuart Broad eventually fell but not before the record books had been rewritten and Pakistani spirits shattered. Broad's innings was majestic and a coming-of-age moment; Trott's an innings that began in dogged, defiant fashion before moving to a quiet, undemonstrative mastery of the Pakistan bowling. And how England needed this epic, history-making parternship since no other batsman got beyond 22.
A word on Trott: even if one still thinks he should not be in the team (being not just a South African but a South African who celebrated with the South African team on their most recent tour of England) it's hard not to appreciate his contributions this summer. Without him, and to a lesser extent Prior, the English batting would have proved almost as gossamer-thin as Pakistan's. Trott, in other words, has become England's new Collingwood. Which in turn means one must ask if England still need their old Collingwood. Not on this summer's heavy-footed evidence they don't. This has been a good series for Ian Bell to miss.
Back to Lords: even as one marvelled at Trott and Broad one suspected that something still more awful than chasing leather lay in Pakistan's immediate future. Many a club cricketer has endured this kind of afternoon when you know that you only need one more wicket to get to the rabbits but, stubbornly, inexorably and yet with gruesome quickness a scoreboard that once read 35 for 4 now reads 220 for 4 and there's still some overs left to bowl... The heart sinks and you just know that you'll be doing well to reach 100.
Apparently this can happen in test matches too. Pakistan's batting was as feeble as a total of 72 suggests but the wickets, though notionally shared by Anderson, Broad, Finn and Swann, were really taken by the the batting of Trott and Broad. The rout was complete and rather sad to see. It was not at all like watching Australia being skittled.
Poor Pakistan. It was hard not to feel for them. Their feebleness with the bat this summer has ceased to be entertaining and is, instead, exasperating. The same might be said of their abject fielding. Reliably unreliable at the best of times this is a side that has beaten Australia and England this summer and yet could also, one suspects, easily lose to a decent County Second XI. When they're good they're magnificent; when they're bad they're worse than woeful.
And yet the cricket has almost always been fascinating; a reminder that the game is best when conditions are such that bowlers have a chance too. These have been, amazingly, good pitches: good batting will be rewarded but so too will good bowling. There's been rather more of the latter than the former of course. Alas, one suspects that County Chief Executives will draw precisely the opposite lesson and demand tracks modelled on the kind of Sri Lankan wickets that cripple cricket and mock its traditions and values. Anything for a five day crowd, you see.
But while the frailty of both sides' batting is cause for concern it's also true that four of the world's bowlers best-equipped to take advantage of encouraging English conditions have been taking part in this series. Swann is the best spinner in cricket right now while Jimmy Anderson is, by some distance, England's best seamer. Asif has bowled much better than his figures suggest while Mohammed Amir has been, quite simply, a wondrous revelation. When Amir bowls you're reminded that cricket is an aesthetic experience as well as a matter of runs and wickets.
It's encouraging that Waqar Younis, Pakistan's coach, has resisted the temptation to over-bowl the 18 year-old. You need to look after this kind of pearl. Amir is the most exciting fast-bowling talent to emerge in years. 30 wickets in six tests at an average of 19.8 this summer is only the beginning. I suspect he'll be named one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year in the next edition of the Almanack and probably the youngest since the 1918 and 1919 seasons when, in the absence of much first-class cricket, schoolboys took those honours.
How much this season has prepared England for the Ashes this winter is another matter and one that, really, should be left to the winter to resolve. Too much attention is given to clashes with the old enemy at the expense of enjoying the tussles of the here and now. Nevertheless, let us trust that, since the batting side of the tour party is already known, the selectors use the three warm-up fixtures in Australia to select the side for the first test on form, not the hope or hunch that So-and-So is "due" an innings.
Thrilling and extraordinary as this test has been and enjoyable as England's victory surely is, you'd need an Australian heart not to feel some sympathy for Pakistan. Their bowlers deserve better from their batsman and their batsman deserve better than their lunatic administrators and the impenetrable politics that corrode their country's cricket.
Since they won't, alas, be playing any tests at home any time soon they'll be exiled for "home" games to the UAE. But I hope that the ECB invite Pakistan to play more tests - against anyone - in England. If only so their batsman can, eventually, learn to bat properly and, more selfishly, so that we can have the pleasure of watching Asif and young Amir some more.
UPDATE: But of course it's Pakistan so nothing is ever simple. This News of the World story makes all manner of allegations about match-fixing. But, on the basis of what's been published so far, most of what what they seem to have uncovered, if their story stands up, is spot-betting not match-fixing. Not good. Not good by any measure but not as bad as throwing matches. Even so, it's still pretty terrible.
UPDATE 2: The full News of the World investigation is now online. On the face of it the paper does seem to have pretty good evidence that Asif and Amir and Butt conspired to deliver three no balls at specified moments. Given cricket's history - and specifically the recent history of Pakistani cricket - it'd be a brave man who dismissed the Screws' story. Which is a bloody shame, not least because of the efforts the ICC has made to eradicate this type of thing in recent years.