It took England a little over two hours on the fourth evening to undo over three days of Pakistan’s dominance at Old Trafford and go 1-0 up in the series. Pakistan had wrestled a lead of 107, managed to set England 277, and even reduced England to 117/5. Then Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes added 139 (that too at 4.21 an over) to turn the Test match on its head.
It is easy to criticise Azhar Ali and the team management for some uninspiring bowling changes (or non-changes) during the chase. However, let that not take the sheen off Buttler and Woakes, who put up what will go down as one of the finest back-against-the-wall fourth-innings performances of all time.
Apart from the enormity of their act and the approach, what stood out was the fact that few had expected Buttler and Woakes to pull it off. One could not blame them. Buttler had played alongside Jonny Bairstow in his early days before taking over the big gloves as Bairstow lost form. With his ability to score quickly, Buttler seemed to be cut out for the spot, at least for the time being.
It had not worked. Ben Foakes’ impressive start put Buttler’s spot under further scrutiny. An average just above thirty did not guarantee him a spot in the side. Buttler did get starts (he went past thirty 34 times in 79 attempts), but reached eighty only on four occasions.
There was additional pressure as well. Buttler had not kept wickets well during the Test. He had let Shan Masood off twice during the latter’s first-innings 156 (the innings amounted to 32 percent of Pakistan’s score across innings). His father had to be hospitalised after the third day’s play.
Woakes had come into the Test with his place in doubt. In James Anderson, Stuart Broad, Jofra Archer, and Mark Wood (not to speak of Ben Stokes), England have an excellent pace attack.
Woakes does have an advantage over them – he is the best batsman of the lot – but that edge had been fading away fast. Before this Test he had scored 47 in his last nine innings, 32 of which had come from one innings. His last three innings had amounted to a combined total of one run. If England wanted to play a bowler who could bat, they always had Sam Curran to fall back upon.
It was only fair to expect that they would be under pressure. Only they did not. In an interview with Sky Sports after the Test, Buttler revealed that he had wanted to “take the new ball out of the equation”. Pakistan’s new-ball attack had already rattled them once in the Test, reducing them to 12/3 in the first innings. Mohammad Abbas, Shaheen Shah Afridi, and Naseem Shah were a more than potent combination.
It made sense. By his own admission, Buttler made up his mind when he realised that the pitch was not very reliable when a ball from Shaheen took off a length to get Ollie Pope. He used the same approach that has helped him emerge as one of the most-feared batsmen in limited-overs cricket.
Buttler made his intention clear by reverse-sweeping the third ball after the dismissal for four. Yasir Shah had been probing throughout the Test match, and was probably unfortunate to not pick up another couple of wickets. But Buttler took him on, and Woakes responded against the fast bowlers. The first seven overs after Pope’s dismissal featured one boundary apiece. England scored 48 in seven overs during that phase.
Buttler and Woakes continued, unfazed. Buttler was hit on the ribcage by Shaheen. He winced but carried on. The confidence was evident from the conviction in his footwork. He had come out to counterattack, and he was not prepared to settle for anything less. He was in no mood to retreat to a shell and allow the bowlers to take control.
The confidence rubbed on to Woakes, who matched Buttler stroke for stroke during the stand. While Buttler took on Yasir, Woakes showed conviction in leaving anything pitched outside the line of off-stump. Aware of the fact that Yasir does not bowl massive googlies, he played and left accordingly.
With 110 to get and five wickets in hand, England were firmly back in the match at tea. And they did not take their foot off the pedal even after that. The momentum was with them, and there was no way they would concede the advantage. The first ten overs after lunch went for 46.
Pakistan looked clueless as the runs flowed. Till then, not only had they been picking up wickets, but had also stemmed the flow of runs. But Azhar still had one card up his sleeve. As the target came down, so did the wait for the second new ball.
Azhar brought on Shadab Khan to hasten the interim phase. It was not an ordinary move per se. Shadab had picked up the last two wickets in the first innings. He rapped Woakes on the pad (Azhar reviewed), had Buttler top-edge a pull, then found his leading edge. Unfortunately, none of these fetched him a wicket, and when that inevitable bad ball came, Buttler calmly dispatched it for six.
England needed another 21 when Yasir claimed Buttler, and yet – this is one decision that will be questioned in future – Azhar continued with Shadab against the new batsman, Stuart Broad. Broad’s ability to handle pace is not what it used to be. Had he brought Naseem or Shaheen back, Pakistan might have had a greater chance of getting Broad.
It was evident that Azhar had saved his fast men for the new ball. It made little sense, for the Test was lost thirteen balls after it was claimed. Having to bowl a solitary over with the old ball would not have taken the edge off Shaheen’s new-ball bowling.
Of course, it was only fair that Woakes would finish things off. His match numbers (2/43, 19, 2/11, 84 not out) are indicative of how incredible he has been against Pakistan over the years.
In fact, if we consider a commonly used parameter – difference between batting and bowling averages – Woakes makes a case for himself even when pitted against some of the greatest names in history.
If Buttler and Woakes helped England seal the match with a partnership that would stand the test of time, the stage had been set by their bowlers in the third innings. They kept coming at the Pakistan batsmen despite the 107-run deficit and a rare off-day from Anderson. If anything, the total of 169 flattered Pakistan, for Yasir’s uninhibited slogging accounted for 33 of these runs.
With 3/54 and 3/37, Broad was England’s most successful bowler in each innings. It was his 25-ball 29 not out that helped England reach 219 after they were 170/8. Promoted up the order during the chase, he hit a crucial boundary. Woakes and Buttler might have been the heroes of the historic win, but Broad’s contributions will not be too far behind.
An injury was expected to prevent Stokes from bowling at all in the match. He had an indifferent Test with bat, but picked up two crucial wickets in a four-over burst on the third evening, making up for Anderson’s ordinary show. Of the batsmen, Dom Sibley, Joe Root, and Pope all looked reliable once they got their eyes in.
As for Pakistan, they should take heart from the performance of their fast bowlers. While Abbas stuck to what he does best – pitch up and look for movement – Naseem and Shaheen kept bothering the England batsmen with his extra pace.
Often criticised for insipid performances away from home, Yasir bowled brilliantly in the first innings, and did everything but pick up the all-important wicket (or two) in the second. On another day he might have spun Pakistan to a 1-0 lead.
Pakistan might have invested in a specialist batsman instead of Shadab, who bowled only 12 overs in the Test. On the other hand, Shadab scored 45 and 15 in the Test. Take Masood out, and no other Pakistani batsman got more runs in the Test.
Babar Azam made his customary contribution, much to the delight of his fans. However, Pakistan’s titanic performance from the Test came from Masood, whose eight-hour vigil at the crease as good as sealed the Test for Pakistan. This was the first Test hundred by a Pakistan opener on English soil in 24 years.
Masood’s defiance will be Pakistan’s biggest takeaway from the Test. Relieving Azhar Ali from the leader’s post may help him deal with his dwindling form. If Azhar and Asad Shafiq rise to the challenge in the remaining Tests, England may need more than a rearguard act to win the series.
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