The weather forecast for this Test is quite reasonable, so today’s curtailed play should hopefully be the exception rather than the rule for the remainder of the game.
What play did take place was something of a throw-back, at least in the first session. England bowled well, Pakistan repelled all that was thrown at them. The importance of opening batsmen who can soak up the pressure has been ignored all too often over the last few years in favour of assuming that Test cricket is the same as one day cricket, full of blazing strokes and where batting time is of lesser importance. Shan Masood demonstrated the value of occupation of the crease. He may be a relatively limited player, but that’s been of little consequence for many an opener who has gone on to a successful career. Although Pakistan did lose a couple of early wickets he, in consort with Babar Azam saw Pakistan through to lunch at 53-2. Barely over 2 runs an over, but unquestionably a fairly successful first morning in challenging batting conditions.
After lunch, things became easier. England bowled poorly, Babar began to cut loose. It’s intriguing to see articles written about how he should be considered the fifth member of the Test batting exceptionals, not because he isn’t worthy of being bracketed with those, but because the list invariably includes Joe Root, who hasn’t been performing at that kind of level for a couple of years now, and to many observers, isn’t even currently the best batsman in the England side. Still, it might be nit-picking to make that observation instead of accepting Babar’s right to be considered in the upper echelons of Test batsmen at present, and he certainly looked the part today.
England did have chances to take a third wicket, firstly when Jos Buttler dropped Shan Masood off Dom Bess’s bowling. For all the debate around Buttler’s place, his wicketkeeping has been perfectly acceptable for most of his time in the England team, and it is his batting that has been most under scrutiny. The dropped catch can be put down to just one of those things – any keeper is disappointed when a fine edge goes down, but always for different reasons to those the non-wicketkeeping commentators state: It’s a question of technique, not reactions, for no keeper reacts to edges when standing up, the ball hits the gloves before the brain is aware an edge has been taken. The missed stumping he will be more annoyed with, for being hit on the shoulder with the batsman that far down the pitch tends to suggest he was caught watching the batsman rather than the ball – something he will work long and hard on avoiding at all costs.
Standing up to the spinners might be something we see a fair bit of this Test if day one is anything to go by. Bess got reasonable turn and significant bounce from the start, which may well be of concern to an England team likely to be batting last, against a team who have selected two leg-spinners. Whether the pitch quickens or dies over the coming days will define their effectiveness, but, forced to bowl spin by bad light, both Bess and Root looked mildly threatening on occasion in the short evening session.
Whether the light was poor enough for the umpires to have forced England to bowl spin in the first place is an open question and goes to the heart of the competing demands of professional sport – the potentially litigious nature of the modern world and the importance of duty of care, versus the requirement that play happens. Cricket always seems to struggle with this – and too often gives the impression that being on the field is considered a nice to have rather than an imperative of the game. All too often resumptions are leisurely rather than urgent, meaning there is scepticism in those circumstances there ought to be trust. It appears to be a congenital problem afflicting the game in too many areas. Yet the commentators by the end did state that even with floodlights it was rather dark, but going off for bad light on safety grounds when the fast bowlers are operating is one thing; doing so when the spinners are on is another matter altogether. The defence is usually on the grounds of fairness, but it’s hard to see how that is any different to being put into bat on a green seamer or having to bowl in baking heat. Unless the fielders are in danger, there’s little excuse for it.
With an unbroken third wicket partnership of 96, Pakistan are in decent shape going in to day two, and any total in excess of 300 has put the England of the last few years under significant pressure. Choosing to bat may or may not have been a marginal call, but there enough observers urging the captain who won the toss to bowl to make it clear it can’t have been entirely clear cut. As ever, day two gives a greater indication of where this game is going.