Just 24 hours after England’s surprise 50-over defeat against Ireland in Southampton to end that series as 2-1 victors, England were back in action in the first Test against Pakistan at Old Trafford. Depending on the way you looked at it, they had either made 11 changes overnight or none since the third Test against the West Indies. There had been some talk that Jofra Archer would make way for Mark Wood, but the Durham paceman’s chance is sure to come again soon. Despite a long and vigorous bowling session before the match started, there remained some concern over Ben Stokes’s fitness to bowl.
For Pakistan, it was almost six months since their last Test match, when Bangladesh came to Rawalpindi on 7-10 February. They made just one change from that match, with Shadab Khan taking the place of Haris Sohail. There was much anticipation to see 17-year-old pace bowler Naseem Shah and 20-year-old Shaheen Shah Afridi, with Mohammad Abbas a much more familiar figure. The pace trio was supported by two leg spinners in Yasir Shah and Shadab. Among the batsmen, Babar Azam had three hundreds in his last four innings and had the highest average (65.47) among all Test batsmen since January 2018, while opener Abid Ali averaged 107 in his three-Test career, though at 32 years old he has plenty of experience.
Azhar Ali called correctly and had no hesitation in batting first, despite the cloudy overhead conditions. James Anderson and Stuart Broad probed away without picking up a wicket, so it was Archer who struck first, nipping one back between bat and pad to dismiss Abid. Azhar was then trapped in front for a duck, and by lunch they had battled their way to 53 for two off 25 overs.
After the break, it suddenly seemed a different game as Babar settled into his work and the runs began to flow. The fifty partnership came up off 109 deliveries, thanks to a sumptuous drive through the covers from Babar, and England’s bowlers began to lose some of their discipline. A sharp chance for a caught behind off Dom Bess could have accounted for Shan Masood on 45, but it went down. Babar reached his fifty off just 70 balls and looked set fair for a big score. Soon after, however, the rain began to fall with the score on 121 for two and nearly three hours’ play were lost.
But the light was poor and so the umpires warned Root to use only his spinners. It nearly paid off, as Shan charged past one from Bess, but Buttler again couldn’t get his hands to it and complete the stumping. At the close of play, Pakistan were 139 for two having had the best of the 49 overs that were possible. It could have been more, as the umpires took the players off at 6.10 for bad light, despite the fact spin was being used at both ends.
On Day Two, England needed an early breakthrough and Anderson provided it in the first over, with Babar falling before he could add to his score of 69, edging through to Root. The wicket had one other significance: it was the 896th that he and Broad had taken in 118 Tests played together, taking them past the 895 by Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan; only Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne (with 1001) have more as a pairing. Broad soon removed Asad Shafiq, who edged to Stokes, and at 150 for four the game was in the balance. The pressure was on from England’s openers and Woakes, who between them conceded only one run in 50 deliveries at one point. Mohammad Rizwan, becalmed, edged Woakes to the keeper and England seemed right on top. In 26 overs to lunch, Pakistan were able to add just 48 runs for the loss of three wickets – but Shan was still there,
Shan and Shadab took their partnership past fifty and regained some momentum. Shan continued to work the vacant third man area to keep his score ticking along (39 per cent of his runs coming behind square on the off side – more than all his runs anywhere in front of square) – prompting the eternal question of why it remains such an unloved position – and reached his third successive Test century, in 251 balls. He was only the sixth Pakistan batsman to achieve that feat, and the only other opener was Mudassar Nazar. Like the day before, England’s bowlers weren’t sustaining their form into the second session, and were now leaking runs at almost five an over. The partnership had just gone beyond a hundred when Shadab skied one to Root off Bess, to fall for 45, with the score now 281 for six. Buttler then dropped another one off Bess; he was having an unfortunate game behind the stumps.
Archer then took two in two to remove Yasir and Abbas, Root taking his third catch for the latter wicket to take him to 121 in his career, level with Andrew Strauss and with only Alastair Cook above him (175). Shan decided the time had come to play more shots, taking 16 off one over from Bess. At tea, Shan was on 151 not out and Pakistan had reached 312 for eight, having dominated the session. Early in the evening Broad finally had him, out LBW for 156 off 319 deliveries, a career-best for him. Broad then took the edge of Naseem as Pakistan were all out for 326.
Pakistan’s exciting attack was ready and waiting for England, and Shaheen struck in the first over to remove Rory Burns, given LBW after a DRS review. The next over from Shaheen, another appeal was upheld by the umpire, but Root reviewed it immediately and it was found to be going over by a good two or three inches – a poor start to the innings by the umpire, but a fine one from the bowler. Abbas then had Dom Sibley trapped in front, before Stokes was cleaned up by Abbas; England were 12 for three and deep in trouble.
Pope came in to join his skipper and decided to play his shots, and the pair put on fifty in 88 balls, but it was he not his skipper doing most of the scoring as the pressure continued. Immediately after, Root edged Yasir to the keeper when on 14, trying a late cut when there wasn’t enough width. Pope and Buttler saw England through to the close on 92 for four, but yet again the first innings of the first Test of a series found England up against it.
Pope reached his fifty off 81 balls early on the third morning as he and Buttler tried to bring England back into contention, but the quality of the bowling was such that it took Buttler 38 minutes to score his first runs of the day, and the first hour saw just 19 runs scored. Naseem then struck to remove Pope for 62 off a thick edge, but it was England’s only loss before lunch, by which time they had moved on to 159 for five.
Soon after the break, Yasir found the smallest gap between bat and pad to account for Buttler, with Bess following soon after, as England slipped to 161 for seven; it soon got worse as Woakes was bowled by the spinner, leaving Broad to come in and swing the bat. Archer was caught behind off Shadab, and with the spinners looking so effective already there were real concerns for England in the fourth innings. Broad was dropped, but it didn’t cost Pakistan too much as Anderson was LBW reverse sweeping. England were all out for 219, trailing by 107 (in their previous five series, England had trailed by an average of 102 runs in the first innings of the rubber, so this was very much par for the course).
Many felt that a score of 150+ from Pakistan would be enough, but Shan was out for a duck, strangled down the leg side by Broad; it was the 900th wicket that Anderson and Broad had shared when playing together. England could have had a second wicket before tea, but Stokes dived in front of Root and dropped Abid, so they made it in to the break on 20 for one. Root brought on Bess early in the evening, and Abid immediately top-edged a sweep into the deep where Woakes took a simple catch. Woakes also struck in his first over, as Babar edged him to Stokes. In his third over, Azhar was LBW for 18, his head falling over outside the line of the ball: 63 for four, and England were back in it.
It could have been better if Anderson had held on to a tough chance at backward point soon after. England’s poor day in the field finally improved when a direct hit from Sibley ran out Asad. At 6.30, Root turned to Stokes, over whom there was so much concern as to his fitness, but with his eighth ball he had Rizwan LBW and Broad followed it up with another trapped in front. Stokes then got Shaheen into a complete tangle with a bouncer to pick up his second as the day finished with Pakistan on 137 for eight, a lead of 244. If England could pick up the last two wickets without many runs being added, one felt it would be game on.
Yasir decided attack was the best form of defence, swinging away, even lifting Broad over the boundary before the England man had his revenge as Yasir edged behind, but his 33 off 24 balls appeared significant. Archer cleaned up Naseem and Pakistan were all out for 169, leaving England wanting 277 for victory (there’d only been one higher successful run chase in Old Trafford’s long Test history); although it had taken England just 16 balls to take those last two wickets, Pakistan had picked up 32 runs in that time. Proper tailend hitting!
England’s openers faced another stern test against a relentless attack. Eventually the pressure told, and Burns was LBW to Abbas. When Root came in, he increased the energy and momentum of England’s run chase, but now the threat came from Yasir as well as from the pacemen. Root and Sibley saw England through to lunch on 55 for one, with the game roughly in the balance and yet another crucial session ahead.
After the break, Sibley and Root took their partnership past fifty, soon after taking the target under 200. But with the score on 86, Sibley was tempted by Yasir into a drive to a wide one outside off, and edged it to slip. Ten runs later, Root (on 42) also edged one, this time off Naseem, and the momentum began to tip back in favour of Pakistan. Another ten runs on, and the ball just brushed the glove of Stokes, something which eluded both the umpire and, seemingly, Stokes, but not Rizwan, who insisted on a DRS review. Shaheen then took the edge of Pope’s bat with one that reared unplayably: 117 for five and realistically England were relying on Buttler, whose place was perhaps on the line after missing three chances in the first innings, and Woakes, whose recent form with the bat had been poor. Pakistan seemed on the brink, especially with the wicket giving assistance to all of their bowlers.
Buttler and Woakes decided to play positively, with scoring shots all around the wicket. Buttler later said he played this as a 50-over run chase, trying to ensure that the second new ball was taken out of the equation. After just six overs together, the pair had added 40; Pakistan were still strong favourites, but now England had hope. At tea, the pair had put on fifty together in 49 balls and 110 more runs were still needed. It was unmissable, gripping stuff.
In the evening session, batting began to look easier as the ball got softer and heads began to drop in the field. England went to 200 with a mistimed pull from Woakes that just landed safely. Buttler reached his fifty in 55 balls and Woakes soon after reached his half-century in 59 balls, the first time he’d reached the landmark in two years. The hundred partnership was next, after 123 balls together. With the target below 50, Yasir looked Pakistan’s best hope and he brought all his formidable skills into play.
With just 21 to win, Yasir struck, trapping Buttler in front on 75 – amazingly it was the 12th time he’d fallen for scores between 63 and 76 in Tests, but he’d taken England to the verge of victory with a remarkable innings under huge pressure. To avoid too much dawdling, Broad was sent out to play a few strokes and ensure there were no slip-ups, but he too was LBW to Yasir – by then, however, England needed only four more runs. It was only right that Woakes got those runs to give England the win by three wickets, finishing on 84 not out. Their total of 277 for seven was England’s tenth highest successful run chase in their history. It had been an utterly absorbing match, with the advantage swinging first this way then that.
Woakes, unsurprisingly, was named Man of the Match. Since his return to the side after being left out for the first Test against West Indies, he has a batting average of 35 and has taken 16 wickets at 15.8, while his fellow absentee from that first Test, Broad, had even more remarkable stats, averaging 54.5 with the bat and taking 22 wickets at 12.1.
It felt inevitable there would be changes to the side for the second Test, and that was confirmed when Stokes withdrew from the squad so he could attend to family matters in New Zealand; almost certainly Zak Crawley will replace him, allowing Root to move back to his favoured spot at four. Although the bowling unit had done its job, I suspect there will be at least one change there, perhaps with Curran coming in for Anderson, who was looking (for once) a little weary in the field. Curran’s arrival will boost the batting and bring a different option to the bowling attack. It’s also possible that Wood might replace Archer, but I’d stick with the younger man, who may not be as consistently fast, but offers more variation. If the next two Tests live up to this one, it will have been a glorious summer of Test cricket.