A far better day for England than they’ve had in Test cricket in a fair while, and one where they have the chance tomorrow to take a hold on this game and get in a position to win their first Test in nine matches. What it doesn’t do is change any of the issues England have, and nor should it be deemed as evidence that all is suddenly rosy in the garden of English cricket once again. To do that would be to ignore the mounting evidence in favour of living purely in the moment and excusing the structural problems that have been there for some time, and were merely brought into focus last week.
That England bowled well, given conditions in which the ball swings should be no surprise to anyone. That when dismissing the opposition for a small total batting seems much easier should also be something to be expected, for the game has not changed so much that the fundamentals no longer apply.
Perhaps it is reading too much into things to see Vaughan’s suggestion that Broad be dropped as providing a kick up the backside, for it would suggest that a player who has been England”s best performer even on tours where the rest of the team has been abject has been coasting, which although a barb aimed at him regularly, doesn’t always accord with his overall record. Broad himself wasn’t having any of it, suggesting after play that the criticism was as much about people promoting their newspaper columns as anything else. One thing that can be said for Broad, he often eschews the anodyne media speak and says what he thinks – it’s sufficiently rare these days to be notable.
Nevertheless, today he was excellent, pitching the ball up, as he does when he is at his very best, and looking the lethal predator he so often appears to be in such conditions. Anderson too, although often tidy outside off stump rather than threatening, showed his ability in helpful conditions once more. There is nothing in what happened today to change the view that when circumstances allow, they are as good as anyone. That is not damning with faint praise, but a reflection of their very considerable skills.
Sam Curran was given his debut after Ben Stokes failed a fitness test, while Mark Wood was the usual bowling sacrificial lamb in response to an abject batting display. This remains very odd, for Wood may not have been fantastic at Lord’s, but nor was he especially poor, particularly when the bowling attack as a whole was given little chance in defending such a poor score. Nor does the argument that he struggles with back to back Tests hold up given England’s seamers hardly were flogged into the ground over five days.
It’s not that none of the arguments are unreasonable, it’s that if they do why pick him to begin with? It seems what it always has done – muddled thinking. Brought in for a single Test, and then discarded. It’s hard to escape the cynical feeling that perhaps his best avenue would be to improve his batting.
Curran himself picked up one wicket to close out the innings, and bowled tidily enough for the most part without looking especially threatening or especially quick, which shouldn’t be so shocking from a 19 year old, and nor should he be judged upon it. That will be on the selectors, for he is a promising cricketer who needs to be nurtured.
Wisdom after the event might dictate that choosing to bat first was the wrong decision, but few expected the degree of movement that transpired, certainly not the commentators, nor it seemed the England team who would have chosen to bat as well. Sometimes it just happens that way.
At 79-7 Pakistan were really staring down the barrel, but Shadab Khan and Hasab Ali at least provided some respectability with a counterattack, that as normal left the bowlers looking somewhat bereft of ideas. Lower order hitting remains one of the more pleasurable sights on the Test cricket field.
In reply, England looked generally comfortable. Keaton Jennings made a decent contribution without going on, Alastair Cook looked in good touch – his late dismissal being down to being too early on the pull rather than too late – while Joe Root looked like Joe Root does. The evening session had some playing and missing, but no more than might be expected from a Headingley Test, and concluding 68 behind and with 8 wickets in hand, England look very well placed to take control.
Cook himself was setting a record with his 154th consecutive Test. It is to be hoped that someone, somewhere one day breaks his record – not for a second because he doesn’t deserve to enjoy a remarkable feat, but because it would mean that Test cricket remains healthy in the future. But it appears distinctly likely that this will remain his for all time. In which case, it remains remarkable, though perhaps not quite so much as Dave Nourse who played every Test of South Africa’s first 22 years in the game. Cook’s achievement is outstanding, Nourse’s is extraordinary.
And yet. The one thing that typifies England’s batting is its brittleness, and should tomorrow be a bowling day, as the forecast perhaps suggests, then Pakistan are anything but out of it.
England’s day by a significant margin, but they’re not there yet.