Pakistan were circling a wounded opponent as the fourth day in Sharjah drew to a close with England two wickets down in pursuit of a seemingly distant target of 284. A century fromMohammad Hafeez had underpinned Pakistan's fightback after conceding a first-innings deficit and only the presence of Alastair Cook and Joe Root, England's two best batsman, at the crease gave the tourists slender reason to hope for an historic victory.

Hafeez's outstanding 151 laid the sturdiest of foundations and left England facing a battle to avoid a 2-0 defeat in the series. Although the scores have gone up in each innings so far in this match, the chase was much steeper than anything England had previously achieved in Asia and Pakistan's spinners looked far more adept than their English counterparts at taking advantage of a wearing pitch.

The injury suffered by Ben Stokes on the first day, effectively reducing England to 10 fit men and a bloody-minded No. 11 with a strapped-up shoulder, has added to the challenge. Even getting close would represent one of England's greatest achievements in the UAE, where they have yet to win a Test in five attempts and counting.

Pakistan are the masters of their domain, for all that England have run them hard throughout the series. Endeavour can only get you so far, however, and a skills deficit in certain areas - spin bowling, most notably - has allowed Pakistan to exert themselves at key moments. Several missed chances in the field on the fourth day, most damagingly a stumping before Hafeez had added to his overnight score, also served to undermine what was an admirably wholehearted effort.

England began their chase with a degree of elan. Moeen Ali overcame what looked a nasty blow to the back of a the helmet when ducking into a Wahab Riaz bouncer to help take 23 off the opening four overs from Pakistan's quicks. But the battle was only really joined when Misbah-ul-Haq turned to his spinners. This was where the Test would be won and lost.

Zulfiqar Babar's second ball snaked menacingly past Cook's off stump, the low bounce amplifying the sense of danger, and the cries of the men around the bat, led by the ever-excitable Sarfraz Ahmed, began to echo louder and louder around the Sharjah Cricket Stadium as England's momentum dissipated. It took 18 overs of spin for England to double their score.

For the second time in the match, Moeen fell to the offspin of Shoaib Malik, a review failing to save him after being caught on the crease by one that would have skidded on to hit leg stump. Malik, on his farewell Test appearance after announcing his retirement at the close of the third day, then breached Ian Bell's defences in his next over.

In between, Cook narrowly avoided being dismissed by Yasir Shah for the fourth innings in succession, when hit on the pads trying to sweep; Pakistan reviewed, with the on-field decision upheld via umpire's call. They resorted to the DRS again, searching for another lbw decision against Root off Babar, with the same result. Given the amount of chances created, the loss of both reviews did not look like being a major hindrance.

For England, it was a day of might-have-beens. Hafeez was nearly dismissed twice in the first over but he escaped to record his ninth Test hundred and strengthen Pakistan's grip on the Test. Although England steadily worked through the line-up, taking the last four wickets for 43 after Hafeez was sixth man out, the chase had already ballooned beyond manageable proportions. A fifth-wicket stand of 93 between Hafeez and Misbah was pivotal.

Only three batsmen have managed to pass 50 in three completed innings but Hafeez rode several moments of fortune to post by far the most significant individual contribution of the match so far, almost double the next best score. This was his fourth hundred in the last 12 months and made him the fifth Pakistani to record a three-figure score in the series; England still only have one, Cook's monument to concentration in Abu Dhabi.

England needed a steady trickle of wickets, it not an outright torrent, but although the nightwatchman, Rahat Ali, was sent back in the second over, their hopes evaporated during the morning along with a succession of half-chances. In a session that seemed crucial to the direction of the match, England's luck was of the desert variety.

It has supposedly been cooler in Sharjah but the breeze was blowing Pakistan's way. Hafeez had survived a review for lbw from the first ball of the morning and that seemed to trigger a rare bout of nerves, perhaps recalling his dismissal for 98 on the first day of the series in Abu Dhabi. Adil Rashid's opening delivery trapped Hafeez in front but Hawk-Eye adjudged it to have pitched outside leg stump; his third was a well-disguised googly that beat the batsman's charge, turned past leg and left Jonny Bairstow grasping at thin air with Hafeez yards from safety.

Finally, having faced 16 deliveries and lost his partner, Hafeez was able to sweep the single required to bring up his first Test hundred against England. He gave another clear chance when on 109 but Stuart Broad was unable to grasp a reflex caught-and-bowled low to his left off a leading edge.

While Hafeez forged on, Misbah erected a wearyingly familiar roadblock at the other end and it was a surprise when he fell to the second new ball for 38, failing to post a half-century for the first time in five innings. Broad set him up for the short ball with a cluster of leg-side fielders before trapping him in front of the stumps with a full, straight delivery.

England might - that word again - have dismissed him without scoring, had they posted a short leg during James Anderson's opening spell. When Misbah strode out, Anderson having speared another precision inswinger through Rahat's defences, Pakistan's lead was 80 and England could sense their opportunity. But Misbah was able to fend away a pesky bouncer and settle into his rhythm, clobbering Rashid over long-on for his 12th six of the series.

England removed both batsmen within four overs, Hafeez chipping Moeen somewhat lackadaisically to long-on, but there was more in the tank, as Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz added a scurrying 55 in short order. That took the target beyond England's highest successful pursuit in Asian conditions, 209 to beat Bangladesh in Dhaka five years ago.

Cook's spinners could not offer any control and the dismissal of Sarfraz by Samit Patel with a sharply turning delivery during an over that also leaked three boundaries summed up their problems as well as the challenge to come.

Patel should also have removed Shafiq for 29 but Anderson, normally one of England's most reliable catchers, unsuccessfully juggled a straightforward chance at mid-on. The dismissal of Yasir finally gave Rashid a wicket on the stroke of tea and Broad then castled Shafiq shortly after the resumption before a run-out in the following over brought England's toil to an end.

Courtesy: ESPN