The ECB are the lucky organisation. They’ve done remarkably well to get Test series on this summer, with the help of the two visiting sides, but over the last couple of years they have been rewarded with some quite extraordinary finishes to international matches. Overall, it’s hard to make a case that they deserve their exceptional fortune, but this summer, perhaps they do. For today was one of those days that cricket can throw up, and which few sports can match. It’s not just the drama of sport, it’s the elongated nature of it that is, if not unique, unusual. Tension builds over time, over days. A five day Test match is a special beast, and one to be cherished, particularly in these times where the whole concept is under threat.
The lack of crowd means that it’s not quite the same, it is a facsimile of the sport we know and love, but it is entirely forgivable and a price worth paying for the time being to be able to see it on television or listen to it on the radio. That it can raise spirits in a time that needs spirits raising is an added bonus, but perhaps speaks most centrally to the value of sport itself, whatever the money men may insist.
The narrative of a Test match twists and turns, winds and loops, offering succour to those who need it, and exacerbating the pain of struggle for those who are finding sporting life difficult. That England owed their win most of all to the twin innings of Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes added a delicious twist to the summer, for Buttler has been rightly under pressure for his place, both due to a lack of runs and his indifferent keeping in this match. One swallow never makes a summer, but irrespective of the wider issues about the best choice for the wicketkeeper/batsman role, today was very much his day. He played with freedom, confidence and aggression – his natural game, certainly, but one he’s struggled to display throughout his Test, and indeed county, career. It is forever the case that selection and choice is wrapped in the paper of a thousand dilemmas and agendas, but on the day a player performs like this, only congratulations are needed, and only pleasure derived – both for a player and a human being.
In the post match interviews, Jos Buttler said that he felt that if he didn’t get runs today, he might have played his last Test for England. Professional sport can be brutal, and the truth is that he may well have been right. The personal tales weaving through a team game are endlessly fascinating. Irrespective of merit, Buttler can enjoy his moment, while Joe Denly never got to experience his. Such are the narrow margins, and Buttler’s quietly spoken charming nature makes it hard not to be anything but delighted for him.
Chris Woakes hasn’t been under remotely the same kind of pressure, for he is a bowler first and foremost, but his lack of runs had been noticed, most particularly by Shane Warne who demonstrated his usual monomania on a subject he’s newly discovered. If runs had been hard to come by for him, today he was exceptional, as though he’d shrugged off any doubts and simply decided to play his shots. Sometimes it works, and today was one of those days. As is so often the case, when a player succeeds so dramatically, it’s hard to understand why they’d been having problems up until that point.
Pakistan should have won this match. They outplayed England for three days, and added sufficient useful runs this morning to be in a strong, if not quite unassailable position. Yet even that should have been a disappointment to them, for at times during this game England looked outclassed by their opponents. England had a shot at victory today alright, but they really shouldn’t have been that fortunate. If there’s one side-effect of the Ben Stokes absurdity in the World Cup final and at Headingley, it is that this England team will genuinely believe anything is possible, that they can win from anywhere. It is a heady mental state to possess, and one that can materially change outcomes in a tight situation.
At 117-5, the game seem almost up, Ollie Pope had just received a ball that had burst through the top and exploded off the pitch to give him no chance of avoiding gloving the ball in the air. With a deteriorating surface and only Buttler and the bowlers to come, Winviz sternly informed the world, who couldn’t possibly have seen the evidence with their own eyes, that Pakistan were strong favourites. What happened though was that as the ball got older and softer, the turn was still there, the bounce still inconsistent, but much more slowly off the pitch. It was enough for the batsmen to cope.
There will be regrets from the tourists. England got closer to their total in their first innings than should have been the case, largely due to Stuart Broad taking the long handle at the end, and in Pakistan’s second innings their overwhelmingly dominant position was steadily thrown away. England bowled well, certainly, and gained a toehold in a game they had little right to be considered an equal party. It remained profligate to toss away wickets and offer up a chance that oughtn’t to have been there.
It remains to be seen whether this first Test will be Pakistan’s best chance and if they wilt in the remainder of the series, but they have the talent to defeat this England team, they arguably have the greater obvious talent of the two. Perhaps with two such mercurial sides nothing should surprise anyone, and if they both live up to the reputations for cricketing madness they have garnered, the next two matches might be a lot of fun.