Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The thrill of the fight

Wednesday, 20 July 2016
How test cricket is a wonderful, wonderful thing. The runs might have dried up, and wickets too had come to a halt; on the face of it, not much might have been happening at all. And yet it was gripping, utterly absorbing stuff. A target to chase that was a tall ask, but not entirely out of reach, meant that every ball survived and every run scored could give England just a fraction more hope, but that everything could change with just a wicket. Pakistan ran out deserved winners in the end, after a contest that was utterly enthralling.

Pakistan were the victors, winning not just the match but also the hearts of many watching. Their previous tour to England of course ended in acrimony, overshadowed by the spot-fixing scandal that saw Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, and Mohammad Amir banned and also imprisoned as a result. Amir made his return to the test team at the scene where it all happened before, but - barring the odd grumblings of discontent - the reception from the stands was generally positive. The final wicket was his, fitting with the script. The past is behind this Pakistan team, and now here is a side crafted in Misbah's image: Misbah, 40 years old and still every bit a test player, and celebrating a century at Lord's with press-ups. When the game reached its conclusion, the team followed; first standing to attention before taking orders from Younis Khan, a reference to a recent army camp before the tour began.

But the match belonged to two men more than most - to Chris Woakes, and to Yasir Shah. I was one of those unconvinced by Chris Woakes before the summer began, but I definitely no longer feel that way, and I am glad for that. He was England's most threatening, most dangerous bowler - and eleven wickets in the match can attest to that. And he held out with the bat too, in that long partnership with Jonny Bairstow that looked like it could edge things back in England's favour. But they had to face Yasir Shah. Yasir, who left England's batsmen utterly flummoxed - and sometimes before they'd even come out to bat. The ball to dismiss Gary Ballance in the second innings brought comparisons with Shane Warne's other 'ball of the century', the one to dismiss Andrew Strauss at Edgbaston in 2005. Sometimes it was just the straight one that did the job too, like the key breakthrough to dismiss Bairstow after he'd held out for so long. Ten wickets in the match were for Yasir, and it was a warning for the rest of the summer for England.

England went on the attack for the second innings, chasing a target of 283. It was a smart way to go after the new ball, perhaps the best time to face this Pakistani attack - just before it really starts swinging or reversing, and before Yasir comes on with his spin. But it was certainly a bold move, and like so many of England's bold moves, flirted dangerously on that line between positivity and recklessness. It will always look brilliant and attract praise when it succeeds, but easily looks foolish when it fails. Hales was gone early, cutting the ball. Root was out pulling straight to the fielder. Vince made his highest score for the test team with 42, but gave chances all the way - and his eventual dismissal wasn't a huge surprise. Moeen's was the worst of the lot - charging at the spinner at the start of his innings, when it just wasn't needed. Ballance (43) was more secure, but the need to dig in soon took over when England fell to 139/6.

England find themselves again with selection dilemmas ahead of the next test, reflected in the 14 men in the squad. Anderson and Stokes return after injury, whilst Adil Rashid is also present - giving the option to play a second spinner, or to replace Moeen Ali as the first choice. Whilst Anderson and Stokes look likely to replace Jake Ball and Steven Finn, Stokes's ability with the bat could lead him to replace James Vince, still struggling to make his mark in the team. If so, it may be an interesting call with the bowlers: to go for a second spinner, so rare in England; to stick with Ball, after a decent show on his debut; or to carry on with Finn, who often looked out of his rhythm, then suffered two dropped catches when he found it.

What is sure though, is that we look in for an absolute treat of a series. The fourth day was the kind that sets the pulse racing, the true test of determination and wills, the character that makes the sport as much as the physical action of bat on ball. And it could well continue with two sides looking very evenly matched, with individuals capable of brilliance, and with the bowlers edging the battle between bat and ball. After this game, I can't wait for the rest of the series.

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