Day 1 of 5: Pakistan 139-2 (Babar Azam 69no) v England
There was not much play at Old Trafford but there was enough to alarm, delight and tantalise – when Babar Azam was on strike. He may have alarmed the English bowlers with the crispness of his stroke play, which, in turn, delighted those in his dressingroom and for the rest of us looking on there is the tantalising prospect of witnessing a batsman, who is on the cusp of turning the fab four of Steve Smith, Virat Kohli, Kane Williamson and Joe Root into a quintet.
Babar came to the crease before lunch when Pakistan were hellbent on survival. After 24 balls he had two runs. Given another hour’s batting after the break he had 52 from 71 deliveries and he had peppered the boundaries against all the English bowlers. By then Root may well have been glad of an interruption to allow himself, his bowlers and the brains trust to gather their thoughts. They came back almost three hours later for 7.5 overs, during which time Babar advanced to 69 not out and Pakistan to 139 for two. It was their day.
Pakistan chose to bat despite the heavy cloud cover, persuaded by a pitch that is apparently drier than the one used in the last Test here. Moreover, Azhar Ali included two wrist-spinners in his team, who will welcome a worn surface later in the game. There are a lot of bowlers playing in this match; Pakistan have five; England might have six by the end of the contest. They selected the side that defeated West Indies here when Ben Stokes played as a specialist batsman; this time they decided not to risk him as a fully-fledged all-rounder.
The veterans Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad shared the new ball against Abid Ali and Shan Masood; they commanded respect, sometimes they beat the bat but they could not shift them. After an hour Pakistan had mustered 34 and Root had turned to his younger pacemen. Jofra Archer, ambling in to the crease, found his rhythm quickly and soon bowled Abid through the gate. Then Chris Woakes intervened to dismiss Azhar, lbw for a duck, a decision instinctively reviewed but if Azhar had hit the ball this contact was made after it had struck the pad.
The two batsmen had to battle hard to reach lunch such was the excellence of both bowlers in the second hour of the session. Masood, a tall, willowy left-hander, batted skilfully with no frills and no excesses, leaving the ball with sound judgment and biding his time. Babar defended with zeal and a very straight bat.
It was a different game after lunch. Babar had done his reconnaissance. Now the ball pinged off the middle of his bat: a back-foot drive off Anderson, straight ones off Broad and Archer and he toyed with Dom Bess, briefly a county colleague at Somerset. Given width Babar struck perfectly placed cover drives against the off-spinner; Bess and Root consulted and changed the field bringing an extra man to the off side; so Babar fetched the ball from outside off-stump to the mid-wicket boundary, seemingly without a scintilla of risk. Suddenly batting was easy.
It has not always been easy for Babar in Test cricket. His talent was obvious as was his early white-ball prowess. Yet after 12 Tests Babar averaged a modest 24; in his next 15 matches he averages over 71. The great players do not always announce themselves with trumpets blaring. The most obvious example is Jacques Kallis, who averaged 24 after 14 Tests and then did rather well thereafter.
Babar overshadowed Masood, but this should not disguise the value of the opener's innings. However his discretion against the pacemen was not always matched by his batting against Bess. He offered two chances against the off-spinner. On both occasions Masood had scored 45 though those chances were separated by the rain break. On both occasions Jos Buttler was the culprit.
Bess found some bounce and turn and also the edge of Masood’s bat, but the catch did not stick. Then after the rain when he was still marooned on the same score Masood charged down the pitch and attempted to drive the ball down to the pavilion or possibly over it. He missed and the ball struck Buttler’s shoulder rather than his gloves with the batsman way out of his ground. The left-hander was obviously uncomfortable against Bess, which was certainly not the case when Babar was on strike.
After the rain and much faffing about play had resumed at 5.45pm; Archer completed an over; the umpires consulted among themselves and with England. Obviously they thought it was too dark for fast bowlers to be operating; so Root opted to bowl himself alongside Bess.
Soon the umpires decreed that the light was now too poor for play to continue even with the spinners in harness. It was at this point that one felt, for the first time this summer, that it was a relief there were no spectators in the ground to witness the curious rituals that make the game look stupid. – Guardian