@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read
England’s Rawalpindi miracle, winning a Test on a very flat pitch, wouldn’t have been possible had Pakistan not been so poor, writes Ben Gardner
Let’s take nothing away from England, whose bravery was astounding.
They identified a game-plan, the only one which could have forced victory on this most placid of surfaces, and then put it into place flawlessly. That is only made all the more remarkable by the fact that anything less than perfection and they would surely have been beaten, when basically any other side in history would have made the game safe first, and then gone for the win.
But still, their success was only possible because of Pakistan’s insipid performance, flawed from selection to strategy to execution, with both ball and bat.
Let’s start with that fever dream of a first day, an unending stream of boundaries throughout. Even as England put up more than 500 on the opening day of a Test for the first time ever, there was the strange sense of a side not having to get into top gear. England hit just a solitary six before tea. Harry Brook’s explanation that the only reason he hit six fours in one Zahid Mahmood over because they were all bad balls, wasn’t an act of psychological gamesmanship or mental disintegration, merely a brusque Yorkshireman’s honest assessment. There was never any pressure built, nowhere to turn to dry up the flow. James Anderson showed it was possible to keep the runs down and Pakistan never looked like they had an answer.
But to blame the bowlers on the pitch is to miss part of the point. Pakistan have been hampered by injury, and suffered another blow with Haris Rauf ruled out of the rest of the series after rolling over the ball. But they still chose to leave their two most experienced available bowlers out of the squad. The Pakistan attack had fewer Test wickets between them than Joe Root has by himself, and yet Mohammad Abbas, as miserly and accurate as ever in the County Championship and the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, and Hassan Ali, who claimed 41 Test wickets at 16 in 2021, were nowhere to be seen. Mahmood conceded the most runs ever by a Test debutant, and is sometimes left out of his state team in favour of Abrar Ahmed, also in the squad but relegated down the pecking order because Mahmood has been around the camp longer.
This confusion in selection extends to the batting, with the veteran Azhar Ali dropped then picked again one Test later, and Fawad Alam, who averaged 64 in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, left out, his Test career presumably now over. Pakistan made 847 runs across the match and lost, the second most of a team in history, but they still missed chances to make the game safe. They were 413-3, and yet despite all except the No.11 getting into double figures, failed to extend their total past 600. The door was left ajar, and England smashed through it. Babar Azam cut Will Jacks to point. Mohammad Rizwan flicked to midwicket and Saud Shakeel’s bat was left out dangling.
In the fourth innings, Pakistan looked unsure of their approach, which was the point of Ben Stokes’ genius declaration. Abdullah Shafique hooked into the deep. Babar played a short ball poorly, Shakeel was another caught in the in-field, and by the time the ball did start reversing, England had made enough in-roads to cash in.
Perhaps the most worrying thing, however, is the surface itself. Against Australia, PCB chief Ramiz Raja explained how preparing flat pitches was his side’s only chance of competing, that the tourists’ might was such that Pakistan could hardly hope for anything better than a draw and a pat on the back. No such justification has been forthcoming this time, and the Mystery of the Rawalpindi Road might need Benoit Blanc to solve it.
Raja says Pakistan are years away from preparing good Test pitches – presumably he means a year and a half backwards, before he took over, when Pakistan and South Africa played out an enthralling series, including a Test at Rawalpindi in which all four scores ranged between 200 and 300. The recent Quaid-e-Azam Trophy also saw ‘normal’ first innings totals and pitches tinged with green. Even if this stretch of tarmac is an unhappy accident, an inferiority complex that has settled around the Pakistan Test team, one that sees them welcome Australia, without an away series win since 2016, and England, beaten in the West Indies earlier this year, and seemingly be content with just sharing a field.
Raja quipped that Pakistan only avoided conceding 30 runs in a five-minute period when DRS was in progress, but they should be above such gallows humour, because the core of a serious team is there. Babar is one of the world’s best batters, Mohammad Rizwan his trusted deputy, Abdullah Shafique one of the game’s standout young players. Shaheen Shah Afridi – unavailable through injury – is a superstar. A kind schedule should have seen Pakistan make a proper march for the World Test Championship final. They should be aiming for dominance at home and competitiveness away. Instead, they are staring down back to back home Test series defeats on surfaces where it should be impossible to lose.