When it comes to batting, the word "busy" may have been coined especially for James Taylor. He does not do serene or languid. There is no violence to him, no murderous strokes or devilment. He just buzzes so that the inside of his head must be a hornets' nest for every minute he spends at the crease. He is a battler, up for the fray, gets stuck in, batting's David taking on Goliath.
And, so Pakistan discovered on the second day in Sharjah, he is rather good at it. England were under the cosh a little when Taylor pottered out to the crease midway through the afternoon session.
Moeen Ali had gone for 14 in the opening overs in a fashion that would have been rustic by tail-end standards never mind someone opening the batting in a Test, and after lunch, Alastair Cook, all but flawless before the interval, had followed having scored 49 along with a strangely lacklustre Joe Root for four. Ian Bell was still there, grinding and grafting, but with Ben Stokes out of the equation, the innings, at 97 for three, but effectively one wicket more, was in danger of imploding.
By the time Pakistan took the second new ball, 10 overs before the close of play, Taylor had played his way to a maiden Test half century in only his third match. He had lost Bell an hour earlier, shuffling down the pitch to Yasir Shah’s leg break, and making only passing acquaintance as it spun outside his groping blade. Bell’s 40, for which he sweated blood, took 158 balls and three and a half hours, with only 16 runs coming from him in 27 overs of an attritional middle session.
But then Taylor found a willing partner in Jonny Bairstow. The latter had enjoyed an excellent first day behind the stumps, and like Taylor, is someone being given an unexpected chance to nail down a more permanent place in the team. The pair remained together to stumps, by which time their unbroken fifth wicket stand was worth 83, of which Bairstow had punched his way to 37 from 94 balls, and Taylor, accelerating a little towards the end against a flagging attack, had made 74, from 141 balls.
At 222 for four, only a dozen behind Pakistan, England have put themselves in control on a pitch that played better than it did on the first day. However they are more than mindful the hard work has to be done in the first innings, as a chase on a wearing fifth day pitch would be no picnic.
For a while now, Taylor has been on the fringes without breaking into the gang – the England’s equivalent of the lad who turns up enthusiastically with his boots round his neck, hoping for a game only to get turned away. He simply could not get a gig. Then came Jos Buttler’s travails and suddenly the game opened up for him and it is a good cricketer who can see the chance and take it.
This was an excellent innings, well thought out and executed. Players who are smaller than average are extremely difficult to bowl to. Where tall players can commit to the front foot and have some measure of predictability in that, short batsmen hang back. Bowlers need to find a fuller length but then it becomes easy to stray into half volley territory. They are usually ferocious on the cut and pull, the cross bat shots: there is no margin for error. And those who may see them as vulnerable to the short ball have never watched Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar or Gundappa Viswanath.
Taylor worked the ball wristily, cut nicely, drove the half volley, and a couple of times opened up and pulled a long hop. Even in the heat, he and Bairstow ran each run hard, so that the Pakistan fielding became ragged towards the end of the day. There is work yet to do but it was a most impressive return in a part of the world in which England batsmen have scarcely flourished.
Until his dismissal shortly after lunch, this looked as if it might be another masterclass from Cook. For the two hours in the morning, unless Yasir was challenging him on leg stump, he was totally in control, unobtrusive, accumulating, and booked in for the duration. It is not a fast scoring ground and on one side in particular the ball pulled up sharply as if hit into the grain. Cook though takes what comes. Misbah-ul-Haq set clever fields that attempted to cut off Cook’s run supply – someone on the cut, another on the slog-sweep, someone on the orthodox sweep and so on, but the England captain began to manoeuvre the ball into areas unusual for him.
Yasir though sees a vulnerability to the cluster of legside close fielders that he sets, one behind square and one just in front. He sees Cook pushing forward, bat in front of pad, and so probed away, looking for the edge onto the pad. Twice Cook did so and escaped, the first time when the ball looped between the fielders, the second when it rebounded too straight.
Finally though, after lunch, when one short of another half century, Cook’s defence failed him, and the ball looped from inside edge to short square leg. It was reward for Yasir’s persistence.