What should we make of the first (unsponsored) Test between England and Pakistan at Old Trafford?
Of course the first thing to note is that, like England’s previous three Tests this summer, against West Indies, there were no spectators. Oddly enough both of England’s opponents are accustomed to playing Test cricket in empty grounds. For England’s players, however, it must be a very different experience. Stuart Broad has spoken about missing the buzz provided by the supporters (he and Ben Stokes are the most likely candidates for “crowd uplift”). Only a year ago – was it really? – at the Men’s World Cup final at Lord’s, and then the third Ashes Test at Headingley – we saw the way in which the reaction of the crowd contributed to the tension of the play. You did not have to be physically present to appreciate that; it was evident when watching on television.
Interestingly, the absence of a crowd led to no lessening of tension at Old Trafford. That was certainly the case for viewers – or listeners – and one feels it must have been so for the players too. Every sport must be different in this respect but the obvious contrast is with football. I haven’t watched a professional football match since I used to make periodic visits to The Dell and to Anfield in the 1970s, but you don’t have to be a sociologist to recognise that football’s tribalism – its blessing and its curse – is crucial to the most casual observation of a contest, in person or via the media. The reactions of the crowd are clearly a consequence of the flow of the game. Cricket is different because each delivery is a separate event. The absence of a crowd in football makes for a completely different experience. In cricket England’s one-day internationals against Ireland passed muster mainly because of the extraordinary third game. The test will come with the Vitality Blast in England, and, especially, the Indian Premier League, confidently predicted to take place in the UAE later this year. Whether that happens, with the logistical arrangements involved in transporting dozens of players from different countries there and back again, is one thing. The other is, who will be there to watch it. I am not a huge fan of T20, although I recognise the skill and intensity. I would love to watch an IPL game though, partly because of the “experience”. Will it be the same without a crowd. I have never watched a Vitality Blast match either but you get the feeling the cricket is almost a sideshow. No wonder the ECB have postponed their precious Hundred.
As to the game itself, how good were the two sides? That must surely be a factor in deciding how good a game is. As the match approached its climax on the Saturday evening some commentators started talking about The Ashes series of 2005, undoubtedly one of the greatest Test series of all time, and in particular the Edgbaston and Trent Bridge matches, both narrow England wins. But those were two remarkable sides. That Australian team was one of the greatest of all time. Four of its members – Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, and captain Ricky Ponting, would be candidates for an all-time World Eleven (or certainly post-war). And England beat them. Just for that glorious summer, with their fantastic pace attack, the all-round invincibility of Andrew Flintoff, the precocious arrogance of Kevin Pietersen and the shrewd unflappability of captain Michael Vaughan, England were world beaters.
England and Pakistan, 2020 version, are not world beaters. Each on their day can be very good indeed, but is equally capable of being poor, if not actually bad. For years Pakistan have been the masters of glorious unpredictability. It is perhaps not a role which sits easily with the English temperament, but Joe Root’s team seem intent on crafting that particular image. When the two meet, the result is bound to be entertaining.
One would expect the “big” players to perform in a great Test match. That was not really the case here. England’s big players – Root, Stokes, Broad and James Anderson played not insignificant, but scarcely conclusive roles. (I was browsing through my copy of the Playfair Cricket Annual 2020, as one does, and discovered something odd about the record partnerships for Test cricket – record first wicket partnership, record second, etc. So there are ten such record partnerships, involving a total of 20 players from South Africa, Sri Lanka, England, Australia and the West Indies; to my considerable surprise, four of those players were playing in this match: Root, Stokes, Broad and Anderson, but none of them was involved in a record stand.) Pakistan’s two most experienced players, by a comfortable distance, captain Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, barely got a run between them. Their senior bowler Yasir Shah, threatened more in the first innings than in the second. The best innings of the match was played by the Pakistan opener Shan Masood, who hit his third century in successive Tests but is still feeling his way at the highest level. There must have been more than a few pundits who would not have picked either of England’s match-winners, Chris Woakes and Jos Buttler, in their ideal starting eleven.
None of that stopped the game being enthralling from start to finish. And it wasn’t as if we had been starved of cricket; indeed Test cricketers can rarely have been confronted with a tighter schedule. It is no disrespect to the West Indies to single out this Old Trafford Test – one of three played there in the last five weeks: the ECB and the cricket world in general owe an immense debt of gratitude to Jason Holder and his team, and, yes, their administrators too. But this game against Pakistan was special.
Nobody picking up Wisden 2021 in twenty years time (and, hopefully, thinking “Wow, why is this one so thin?” as opposed to “Ah, the first slimline Wisden”, or worse) and looking at the scorecard is going to think it was anything special. England won by three wickets with a day and a bit to spare. There were whole sessions, particularly the morning sessions of the second and third days when nothing seemed to be happening. But it was riveting stuff and anybody capable of appreciating a contest would understand that. Test cricket allowing for ebb and flow is a cliché but this game really did demonstrate that. The second half of England’s run chase, after the dismissal of Oli Pope on Saturday afternoon, was heroic stuff but there is an almost unarguable case for saying that Pakistan lost the match – as opposed to England winning it – with their inadequate second innings. But fortunes changed both dramatically and gradually, sometimes together. On the fourth morning Pakistan were 240 ahead with two second innings wickets left; knock those two over quickly, was the thought, and England would have a real chance. But Yasir Shah had other ideas. A target of 277 just looked too much, especially when Pope was fifth out with the score on 115.
Buttler and Woakes got them home – well almost, Buttler and Broad were out just before the end – and their batting was wonderful to watch. But in a funny sort of way Buttler’s second innings was no more watchable and intriguing than his first, when he had confronted one of Test cricket’s great magicians, Mohammad Abbas, on the third morning.
Test cricket has it all. We had tip and run on the second afternoon when Masood and Shadab Khan were toying with Broad and Anderson. We had majestic strokeplay from Pope and Babar Azam. And, as I said, there were periods of strokelessness when the balance of power was shifting imperceptibly.
What other game can give you that? Not The Hundred, that’s for sure. The self-regarding marketing man who could invent this has yet to be born. Nobody was there, watching and cheering . But you couldn’t take your eyes off it for a moment.
That’s why Manchester mattered.
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