And Now for Something Completely Different

In England by Bill Ricquier

Having seen almost none of the extraordinary first Test between Pakistan and England at Rawalpindi, I don’t really feel qualified to say anything about it. But then again this has been such a remarkable game that it does not seem right to say nothing.

Was the last Ashes series really less than a year ago? When England seemed so, well, bad? The transformation has been astonishing. A huge amount of the credit for this has to go to the captain, Ben Stokes. Obviously there is also the Test coach, Brendon McCullum, and the former white ball captain, Eoin Morgan, who, advised by McCullum, reshaped England’s white ball teams who are now world champions in both the 20 over and 50 over formats. But McCullum and Morgan are not on the field when England are playing. I did watch quite a bit of the final day, and Stokes’ positive attitude, his inventiveness, his sheer cricket cleverness, are plain for all to see.

The sensational first day, when England became the first side to score 500 on the opening day of a Test, was also down to Stokes – and McCullum – because it is impossible to imagine any previous England side – or any side actually – taking such an approach. Zak Crawley took 14 off the first over and that set the tone. Harry Brook’s 153 was the highest individual score in England’s 657. It must be unusual for such a big score not to contain at least one double century. This perhaps demonstrates the batters’ selflessness, and their commitment to the cause of unrelenting enterprise.

Even then people were not entirely satisfied. There was a feeling the lower middle order should have calmed down and taken the score to 750 or more. Had that happened, the match would almost certainly have been drawn.

Pakistan themselves made 579. By the middle of the match Ramiz Rajah, chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board, was saying that the pitch was an embarrassment. He was probably thinking of the previous Test at the ground, against Australia in March, a tedious high scoring draw in which Pakistan finished the fifth day on 250 or so for two. But the rapidity of England’s scoring – they were even faster in their second innings – meant that all conventional calculations had to be thrown out of the window.

Stokes’ declaration, at tea on the fourth day, was a reckless gamble or a masterstroke, depending on one’s point of view. It was both really. Andy Zaltzman of the BBC said that, were Pakistan to win, it would be the first time not just in Test cricket but all first-class cricket, that a side batting first and scoring 657, had lost. If Stokes knew this, he didn’t seem to care. In some ways the most extraordinary thing about the match was that for much of the final day, until tea, Pakistan were favourites to win it.

England’s performance in that fourth innings, spearheaded by their pace bowlers, 40-year old James Anderson and player of the match Ollie Robinson, each of whom took four wickets, marshalled by their inspirational captain, was masterful. They had a decided advantage in that, while Stokes knew exactly what he wanted, Pakistan never seemed so sure: that was part of the genius of the declaration. Tension grew because of the perennial problem of the light. The final wicket fell with perhaps ten minutes to spare.

Anderson – who has played quite a bit of cricket – said it was the best away victory he had played in. Everyone contributed, except the unfortunate Liam Livingstone, who was injured early on.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing of all was that early on the first day it looked as though the match might have to be postponed because of a mystery virus that had struck fourteen of the England squad. The game in fact started on time but Ben Foakes was not fit to play, giving Will Jacks an opportunity to play, and several players were not wholly well, notably Joe Root and Ben Duckett. Mark Wood had pulled out earlier through injury. This somehow makes the victory even sweeter.

Of course, people will say it can’t go on. By it, I mean “Bazball” or whatever. They said that after the New Zealand series, and at the end of the summer, and no one thought it would work in Pakistan.

Well, we live and learn. And one thing is for sure. The captain is one of our greatest ever cricketers.

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