– Atreyo Mukhopadhyay
Pakistan suffering a first-ever Test series whitewash at home or England setting a template for how the game should be played in the future? It’s difficult to choose between the two, when it comes to picking one highlight of the series England won 3-0 on Tuesday. Nobody, not even the English, foresaw this scoreline when the first Test started in Rawalpindi on December 1.
Because Pakistan had never before lost all matches of a Test series at their own den, we might have to go for 3-0 as the major highlight of the series, marked also by their captain Babar Azam’s unprecedented decision to sit out for an hour or so in protest against his own cricket board’s security arrangements which stopped him and a few teammates from stepping out of the team hotel for dinner. Also, talks of changes at the helm of the board started doing the rounds in the middle of an important series.
Not long ago, the cricket world was looking at Pakistan’s pace bowling arsenal with envy. Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and others, it is an enviable pack indeed. While Afridi’s injury was a blow, the others were taken apart by the England batsmen. Spinner Abrar Ahmed’s successful initiation into Test cricket was the only silver lining for Pakistan, but hardly a consolation for this crushing defeat, which puts them out of the race for a place in the World Test Championship final.
What might hurt Pakistan more is the inability of their batsmen to convert starts into big scores. In conditions best known to them, they managed three centuries in six innings, all of them coming in first innings of the first Test. So in five innings after that, none of them reached three figures. For England, Harry Brook alone hit three centuries. Pakistan’s batsmen kept wilting under pressure, the first Test being a prime example, where they lost despite making 579 in the first innings.
But for me, the biggest highlight of the series was the way England batted. Test cricket had not been played in this fashion. There were signs of what they are up to in the Tests against New Zealand and India earlier this year. In Pakistan, they took it to another level. Not just in Rawalpindi, where they made a record 506 runs on the first day of a Test match, they tried to be in aggression mode throughout. Of course, you can’t score at 6.5 per over in every game, but their intention of bludgeoning the attack was very clear. Zak Crawley, Ben Duckett, Ollie Pope, Brook and Ben Stokes all ended the series with strike rates in the 90s. Joe Root had a strike rate of 85. This is unheard of.
And this powerful batting performance came in spite of Root not making big contributions. Hero of their home summer Jonny Bairstow is out with injury. Evidently, this revolutionary batting philosophy has been propagated by Brendon McCullum, who took over as coach in May this year. England have not looked back since. Not a frontrunner to make it to the WTC final because of defeats in the first stage of the cycle, England have won nine and lost one of their last 10 Tests. In art, there was a school called Futurism. Painters of this tradition depicted speed, dynamism and movement in their works. There was no romanticism. Under McCullum, England are playing a game of the future, pragmatic and intensely purposeful.
Other than this unique style of batting, England reaped the benefits of planning in bowling also. They knew only pace would not work in Pakistan and kept options ready in the spin department. Left-arm orthodox Jack Leach was their most successful bowler with 15 scalps. Leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed took seven wickets on Test debut in the last game. Even Root chipped in with five wickets. The role of the quick bowlers was to bowl short spells and provide breakthroughs. Leach bowled the long spells and did maximum damage. The approach was methodical.
Pakistan will have to set house in order first. Uncertainty in the board could not have surfaced at a worse time. Skipper sitting out in protest when his team is fielding is unprecedented. Talent will only prosper if channelised in a systematic manner. It can’t blossom if the absence of a method. There appears to be more madness than method in Pakistan’s cricket at the moment. There is a great example they can follow — the team that handed them a first-ever 3-0 drubbing in a home series.