On a placid pitch in Rawalpindi, the first 11 sessions went exactly how one would have hoped: Runs, runs and more runs. Things took a turn when Ben Stokes declared at tea on the fourth day, setting Pakistan 343 to win. It was one of the bravest decisions taken by a captain given that the pitch had not changed much over the course of the match, the outfield was lightening quick and the Pakistan batters, showed their class in the first innings where they scored 579, their highest total at the venue.
After scoring 657 in the first innings, England were potentially in a situation where they can actually lose a game. This after they scored at a staggering 6.5 runs per over with four of their top five getting centuries and for a change none of them were named Joe Root. They bettered that in the second innings, scoring at well over seven.
When the pitch is as flat as this, there’s no point holding back, playing defensively with a mindset to just play out time. It worked in England’s favour given that in their new era under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes, they tend to go all out for a win, even at the cost of risking a loss.
In our pre-match preview, we touched upon the possibility expanding ‘Baz-ball’ beyond England and in Rawalpindi they showed their strategy was not just restricted to familiar conditions at home but it was ready to spread its wings and do so emphatically.
"We've played 8-9 matches with myself and Brendon in charge. One thing we try to do is focus on ourselves and not the opposition. We know we're a very exciting team," Stokes said after England’s 74-run victory.
"We wanted to come here to Pakistan and carry on with our mantra of exciting cricket. I've got no interest in trying to play for a draw, the dressing room has no interest in playing for a draw. Felt on this kind of wicket, almost had to entice the batsmen to play an attacking shot.”
The difference in the end proved to be Stokes’ captaincy – be it in the bowling changes he made, the fields he set and not letting the shoulders drop at times when it seemed Pakistan would run away with the game – something that former captains Nasser Hussain and Michael Atherton acknowledged.
“You think you have seen everything in this game until you see the last five days. There is no reason at all that on that pitch, there should be have been a result apart from one team we forgot, that is Stokes and McCullum. The rate they got their runs, to go out there and get 20 wickets, I think it is the best bit of captaincy I have seen,” Hussain told Sky Sports.
“Every decision that he made today, including keeping the old ball, keeping himself back for the old ball. Getting that ball reverse-swinging, timing of taking the new ball. Every decision was spot on, with his team backing up. The team will run through a brick wall for Stokes. Ollie Robinson bowling spell like that. Giving Leach the new ball, as he himself said, it is the greatest away win for England,” he added.
Coming from someone who was the last captain to win a Test in Pakistan 22 years ago under fading lights is something Hussain can surely resonate with.
England set the tone with short-ball stuff in the fourth innings to peg Pakistan back initially. They got a couple of wickets, including that of Babar Azam, with that strategy before stumps on the fourth day and Robinson, who was on song, hit their most senior batter Azhar Ali on the arm forcing him to retire hurt.
Time after time, Pakistan put the pressure back on England with steady stands. On the final day, Pakistan’s intentions were clear: They were happy to play out the quick bowlers, but when the spinners came on, they went after them. What England did well was they picked up an early wicket or two every session to keep Pakistan in check.
Pakistan managed just 13 runs in the first 13 overs of the day on Day Five, all bowled by James Anderson and Robinson. Mohammad Rizwan did not get off the mark off his first 23 deliveries. However, after Will Jacks came on, he was keen to stamp his authority. He gave Pakistan some momentum with Jack Leach and Jacks bowling, before the pacers returned to turn the screws.
Fast forward to the final session of the match, Pakistan were just 86 runs away from victory, England needed five wickets. It was a game in fine balance, add fading lights, it was a perfect script for a Hollywood story.
Moreover, Agha Salman and Azhar Ali too were well set. It was going to be big ask for England, first to break this stand, and then to run through the tail on a flat fifth-day track in potentially 20-odd overs.
That’s when Robinson decided to unleash his wrath. He struck in twice in his first 13 deliveries after tea and to add cherry on top, it was the two well-set batters. England had Naseem Shah and three debutants – Zahid Mahmood, Mohammad Ali and the injured Haris Rauf – standing in their way.
With the ball reversing, Stokes went with Anderson to partner Robinson. Through the match, Stokes was seen keen to have pace at both ends and while the spinners did a fine job, he wanted one side to roughen up quickly so that the pacers could get the ball to reverse. With 80-odd to get and the ball over 80 overs old, this was the perfect time for the pacers to put all their skills into play.
"Forget Bazball, Pakistan need a bit of Misbah-ball (Bahball) at the moment!” said one comment on social media.
And for the next few overs, that seemed to be the way Pakistan were going. There were no demons in the pitch for the bowlers to exploit and the tailenders too seemed to have a solid defense.
Stokes had set a leg-side dominant field. With three fielders – leg slip, short-leg and leg gully all in readiness to grab onto any half chance. The mid-on and mid-off were well just on either side of the pitch closer to the batters. Anything slightly in the air, there was going to be a chance. England realized quickly that there was no point of having too many at traditional slip position given that there was no movement nor carry, and hence focused largely on bowling straight, forcing the batters to make mistakes.
There were a few dismissals with batters gloving it to the ‘keeper and with Azhar clipping it to Joe Root at leg-slip, this plan seemed to be the one England were hell bent on going in with for the final stages of the game.
With not more than 10-15 minutes left, they had to get the final wicket. Picking up 19 wickets and not finishing the job would have certainly left them deflated. For 52 deliveries, Stokes, Robinson and Leach had a crack at the last batting pair. It seemed as though England would have to settle for a draw despite switching ends extremely quickly.
The last pair tried their best to delay proceedings: Mohammad Ali in fact went into the dressing room for a break, there were also instances of Naseem asking for a fresh pair of gloves, just to slow things up and eat away some time.
With nothing working for England, Stokes decided to play one of his final cards by taking the new ball. The hope was it would zip through to the wicket faster and might also have a bit of bounce. Eight minutes, one wicket, some time for Pakistani batters to waste, time was ticking like a bomb for Stokes. And then the final card - getting Leach to bowl.
The trick worked as one of Leach’s deliveries skidded through to trap Naseem Shah in front, bringing an end to his 46-ball resistance.
The celebration under fading lights would have certainly rekindled fond memories of England’s win in Karachi in 2000 when a jubilant Nasser Hussain and Graham Thorpe wrapped their hands around each other, in a near pitch dark background to celebrate a famous Test and series win.
The transformation from the Joe Root-Chris Silverwood era to the current one has been an extreme one. With no wins from Root’s last 17 Tests as captain to losing just once in eight games under Stokes-McCullum, and winning chasing down mammoth targets and scoring at brisk rates, England’s transformation in Tests seems to have taken a corner and there are also talks of how this approach might even change Test cricket as a whole.
With Root relieved of his captaincy duties, he too seems to have bought into the whole Baz-ball idea. We’ve seen him scoop the fast bowlers, reverse sweep them and also in this Test saw him bat left-handed perhaps for the first time in international cricket. That embodies the fearless approach that the entire team has moved into.
England revolutionized white-ball cricket after their exit from the 2015 World Cup and now have both limited-overs World Cup under their belts. Will there also come a time when England are also holding the World Test Championship Trophy (WTC) aloft next year?
Nothing else can be a picture of sheer dominance if that were to come to fruition.