IT was perfect bait. A seemingly chase-able target of 343 with four sessions of play left on a docile Pindi Stadium track where taking wickets seemed harder than climbing Mount Everest in bad weather. Ben Stokes’ decision to declare England’s second innings at 264-7 on the afternoon of the fourth day of the first Test turned out to be a masterstroke as 96.3 overs later the tourists were celebrating “one of the greatest away Test wins” in their history.
It was a Test that England and their valiant captain deserved to win. While England did everything right, from batting at T20-like run-rate to taking wickets through sheer determination, the Pakistanis were unable to answer in equal measure. In fact, they were far from it.
A target of 343 on a featherbed that produced a whopping total of 1,768 runs -- the highest aggregate in a Test in 83 years -- in four sessions was quite achievable. It was the sort of challenge that should have brought the best out of the home team.
It didn’t. Apart from debutant Saud Shakeel who hit a crafty 76, no other Pakistani batsman could rise to the occasion. Not even the highly-rated Babar Azam, who fell cheaply to his England counterpart Stokes for just 4. Pakistan needed their captain to lead by example. Unfortunately for Pakistan, he failed when they needed him the most.
While Babar didn’t get a start, others like Imam-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali and Mohammad Rizwan did. All of them failed to convert it into the sort of big innings that a team chasing 343 to win needs even on a batting paradise like this one. Despite the fact that the Pakistanis were unable to put up any big partnership, they were always in the hunt till the twin losses of Azhar and Agha Salman in quick succession. Without taking away credit from the English pacers, Ollie Robinson, Jimmy Anderson and Stokes who bowled their hearts out on an unforgiving pitch, one must say that Pakistan had a big hand in their own fall. There was this lack of self-belief in the home team’s dressing room right from the word go. The fact that they prepared a dead wicket for a game that they needed to win to stay in contention for a place in the World Test Championship final says it all.
England’s 74-run triumph in the opening Test is certainly one for the ages. It will go down in history as one of their most memorable away wins. In the context of this three-match series, the result gives England a crucial lead and a big psychological advantage ahead of the second Test in Multan. By forcing a result on a benign wicket, England have shown Pakistan that they would need to come out with a better plan to counter ‘Bazball’.
The clock is ticking for Pakistan. They erred in their choice of surface as well as their playing eleven for the opening Test. There is this temptation to blame the batters for getting bowled out for just 268 but Pakistan’s bowlers didn’t do well either. They allowed England to score at a rate of almost seven an over, something that played a decisive role. It’s obvious that Haris Rauf isn’t fit enough for the red-ball format. Debutant Mohammad Ali didn’t seem good enough. Spinner Zahid Mehmood looked toothless. Pakistan also need to make a call on Azhar. Despite being the team’s most seasoned batter, he could just score 27 and 40 even in the friendliest of batting conditions.
Pakistan will need to go back to the drawing board and come out with a better line-up for the second Test. They have to win this series to stay alive in the World Test Championship. This means that the Multan Test is a must-win match for them. But after seeing what rampant England are capable of, the chances of a Pakistani comeback don’t look very bright.
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