Mark Wood punched the ball down the field for an off drive, and Mohammad Amir was at mid-on, but made quick ground to catch up to the ball. He came from the left of the ball, but he kept running until he was on the ball’s right. Then he squatted as he ran and tried to flick the ball back. Amir missed it, fell over the rope, and didn’t even see the ball hit the rope.
Pakistan at their worst.
Pakistan would bowl first, by their own choice, or ultimately with England’s. Pakistan wanted to use their strength – this bowling attack – as soon as they could. There is a sameness to Pakistan’s seam attack, there are no tall bowlers, no one fast either. Other than Amir’s left arm, they’re very similar; all rely on skill, all are 130s bowlers.
When Rahat Ali bizarrely played in the Ireland Test – despite having not played a first class game before the tour since the end of 2016 – the Pakistan attack did not look that good. They seemed to rely on the sticky tape keeping Amir’s knee together, and the occasional breakthrough of Shadab Khan. Hasan Ali has completed his attack, and although he is more of the same, he’s high quality more of the same.
But what this allows them is four seamers who don’t bowl poor balls, three of which are strike bowlers. The accuracy allows them to build pressure. And that is what they are, a high skilled bowling attack that doesn’t give you much, but which can occasionally bowl magic balls. Sure, Mohammad Irfan’s height would be handy, and as would Wahab’s 40 minutes of occasional brilliance, but this is a different kind of attack. They stick to plans; they keep it tight, and they move the ball for long periods of time. It may not work everywhere, but for the first 16 wickets of this match, in this climate, on this pitch, it couldn’t have worked much better.
There was no time there wasn’t some pressure on the English batting, Abbas attacked the stumps, Hasan the outside edge, Faheem Ashraf kept the scoreboard pressure on, and Amir bowled great spells. And of course there was magic.
But when Hasan bowls a big hooping delivery or Mohammad Abbas nips one violently or Amir produces a supernova, it’s not a one-off thing that has to work, it’s the cherry on top of an exceptionally well baked medium-fast cake.
Even in the #MisYou days, Pakistan struggled for a top three. But against Ireland, it became a scream.
Malahide exploded when Boyd Rankin took Ireland’s first Test wicket. The next ball Tim Murtagh added their second. 13 for 2, Pakistan would recover, before losing a bunch of middle order scalps and teetering on the edge at 159 for 6. In the second innings they were chasing 160, Rankin took a wicket, but the real destroyer was Murtagh.
Murtagh is a 36-year-old seamer who’s played 211 first-class games, mostly in the County Championship, but has never been that close to English selection. He bowls in the high 120s, and he had Pakistan sweating both times he bowled to them. Murtagh is a good quality first-class bowler, but he’s not Jimmy Anderson.
Azhar Ali bats too slow, Imam-ul-Haq is only picked because of his famous uncle, and Haris Sohail is a late bloomer who looks pretty but has a permanent look of impermanence. And now without Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, there is no safety blanket left. Asad Shafiq’s finding batting a hell of a lot tougher away from the cushy number six position. Babar Azam, the white-ball batsman, looks down on Babar Azam, the red-ball guy. And whatever magical land Sarfraz Ahmed‘s batting came from, it seems to have gone back to.
Yet on a cold grey day, close enough to stumps to make them nervous, Pakistan held on. The following morning, they stepped up again. When their captain played a silly shot in the shadows of tea, their middle order pulled together, even after Babar’s arm was smashed up. They out batted England’s bowlers on a day England’s bowlers bowled well, they handled Wood’s short balls, and survived the best Ben Stokes could throw at them.
Azhar did what he does for over 200 minutes; it wasn’t his best innings, but in the context of the match, it is heroic. Shafiq looked like the senior batsmen he actually is, and his innings was quality. Babar batted on rails, the exact way someone of his talent should have batting. It’s probably the best Test innings of his life. But no one made a big score; it was a decent total, made as the entire team stands up.
They didn’t just out-bat England; they out-batted their individual parts. And they withheld.
In Ireland’s first innings their opening partnership was 5, which is what the two openers made combined. In the second innings Ed Joyce, one last job before retirement, and Will Porterfield were each missed by Pakistan before the fifth over. The opening partnership was finally broken after 69 runs, Ireland took that partnership and built it into a lead that almost won them the match.
Even in fielding drills, the difference in quality between Pakistan and Ireland was obvious. The old, newly professional first time Test nation looked the better fielding team.
Within the first few overs, Imam ran around a ball at point, and Babar missed a run out. But those are so noticeable because over the next innings and a half Pakistan were outstanding. Most notably in the slips.
At the toss at Malahide, Ramiz Raja asked Sarfraz about their slip catching. Now, this was a historic Test, and Pakistan were batting first, so it shows how poor Pakistan’s slip fielding has been. Although it doesn’t show it as much as just showing clips of Amir bowling.
When Jos Buttler drove at a wide one from day one, it went flying to the right of Shafiq, and briefly, looked like it went past him. But he held out a hand, and it stuck. Soon after he had another one. Sarfraz took a diving catch on day three, the exact catch he didn’t even go for at Malahide. And even the twelfth man, Fakhar Zaman held on to a decent catch to get rid of Stokes. They were all catches you’d expect top teams to take, but not always from Pakistan.
In this match, it would’ve been a surprise if they dropped one.
The Pakistan tail is expected to be somewhat entertaining, for a short period. But this is a different kind of team; this one – perhaps in the traditions of Mickey Arthur’s South Africa – is built to bat down the order. Ashraf currently looks like the kind of player you use for a while, before ultimately discarding. He’s a nagging bowler, that would be really handy at first-class level, but at Test level he’s probably a weapon short. As a batsman you can already see how he’d be handy, but his first-class average of 31 seems about right, so he’ll never be top six. So in most teams he’d be a poor fit.
But in this team, he works well. He can bat at No. 8, keep it tight while being enough of a threat that you have to still watch him. Pakistan could pick better players, but right now, he allows them to bat at eight and have a more extended batting order. It’s probably not a long-term solution, but right now, it’s close to ideal.
In Ireland, Ashraf scored 83, and looking back, it was the match-winning knock. Or at least the match-winning partnership. Because at the other end was Shadab.
Almost from Shadab’s first few balls in the PSL, no, even before that, from the moment he first fielded in the PSL, he’s been hyped up. Pakistan has had some of the most talented cricketers we’ve ever seen, but they’ve barely ever had – as baseball puts it – a genuine triple threat. His legspin might actually be the least developed of his talents, and he still ripped enough balls to make England nervous. In Ireland, Shadab made 55.
At Lord’s they came together after Babar’s arm was in bits, with a lead of 62. At that point, Pakistan had been plucky, but that is the moment where teams have often lost in England’s May. Bowling England out cheaply is one thing, putting on the big lead is the harder one. Anderson is a golden god in the early summer series in England. Even with the small lead, England would’ve backed themselves to role Pakistan cheaply, and out on enough runs to win the game. That didn’t happen because again Ashraf and Shadab stood up.
It wasn’t classical batting; it looked like two bowling allrounders, both high on confidence and low on worries. Ashraf scored at near run-a-ball, Shadab scored boundaries against England’s three quickest bowlers. The partnership was 72, the fourth-highest in the match, and came from 85 balls, the second fastest of the game. Ashraf made 37, Shadab 52. When Ashraf was out, the lead was 136.
Two allrounders, one maybe bits and pieces, one potentially the real deal, two consecutive partnerships they’ve saved Pakistan.
Pakistan – by their own admission – were ragged in the final session of day three. The same thing happened against Ireland, and Kevin O’Brien’s second first-class hundred almost cost them the Test. At Lord’s the fielding in this session was the lowest standard by either team in the game. As the pitch flattened out, and Shadab could no longer bowl into footmarks for left-handers, they looked like the one-dimensional attack that can’t make things happen. And Sarfraz’s captaincy was poor.
Pakistan didn’t know whether to attack or defend, to wait for the second new ball or hope for more reverse. Sarfraz was like a kid who wanted the last cookie but didn’t want to be told off for grabbing it.
Pakistan looked as soft as the ball they had replaced. With each fumble or dive over the ball, Pakistan went from the team who was going to win by an innings to the team who might lose.
It was exactly how you would expect a young Pakistan team to perform at Lord’s, and it was precisely the opposite of how they played for the rest of the game.
The morning of day four Pakistan was like John Wick, stylish, efficient and deadly. Pakistan didn’t blow England away; they terminated them. There was no bunch of boundary riders for Jos Buttler, they attacked him with a cordon, even with the older ball. The ball they had diligently been preparing even through their worst session the night before.
It reversed before stumps, but today they a key wicket with the old ball. That’s before the new ball is taken. But again, with the new ball, they were just as focused. The new ball can fly, and 20 or 30 runs from the tail swinging around could have made Pakistan nervous. There’s no nerves, there’s only 25 balls, seven runs and four wickets.
And then the chase, they only needed 64, but other than a magic ball taking Azhar’s off stump, Pakistan never looked worried, rattled, or anything other than a team who would jog to victory. Fifteen minutes in, even the most Pakistani of Pakistan fans couldn’t have thought they would lose. This chase was a formality, not a calamity.
England had the better seamers, their batsmen are most use to the conditions, and their cricketers are more use to slips catches, and Pakistan beat them comfortably at all of it. You could not argue that England were weak in this Test, but you also would have to agree that Pakistan were outstanding.
The final ball, a full toss on Haris’s pads, he clipped it away elegantly. Imam jumped for joy, but Haris went and put his bat down beyond the crease first. It’s exciting because it was unexpected, but it was also clinical to the end. England weren’t beaten, they were dissected.
One ball after Mohammad Amir ran past a ball and fell over while not stopping it, Mark Wood gets a short ball. Wood tries to pull, but is late on the ball and skies it back over the bowlers head. Amir runs around and back at full speed, he starts his dive just as the ball gets to his hands, rolls on the ground, gets up and does a double fist pump.
Pakistan at their best.