As the yolk-like sun set on a second dizzying day in Multan, it felt like England had not just furthered their prospects of claiming a famous series win on their first visit to Pakistan in 17 years, but also learned a bit more about themselves along the way.
A bit like the proverbial wet Wednesday in Stoke, many had wondered how this collection of instinctive dashers would fare when ball has the edge over bat. Pakistan were clearly among the doubters, responding to England’s ransacking of Rawalpindi by ordering a slow turning surface 300 miles south and packing their attack with spinners.
But once assured half-centuries for Ben Duckett (79) and Harry Brook (74 no) completed three sessions of dominance for the tourists, the question was closer to being answered. England reached 202 for five from 49 overs in their second innings, 281 runs ahead, and had the comfort of knowing it would take the highest total of the match to prevent them going 2-0 up with one to play.
Not even the ongoing fairytale of Abrar Ahmed’s debut could halt their march, Pakistan’s new mystery man having twiddled his way to three more wickets to make it a memorable 10 for the match. Instead, the enduring image was probably that of Brook shimmying down to leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood late in the day and somehow driving a ball that pitched outside leg through extra cover for four.
Perhaps this is a little unfair on the bowlers who had helped bend the script to England’s will, turning Pakistan’s overnight 107 for two into 202 all out and a precious lead of 79 runs. Jack Leach claimed four for 98, including his 100th Test wicket, while Ollie Robinson lit the fuse on this remarkable detonation when a reverse-swinging corker bowled Babar Azam first thing.
“One hundred Test wickets is more than I felt I’d ever achieve,” said Leach, the milestone coming in his 31st appearance. “I need to remember that. I’m just loving playing for England right now – the most I’ve ever loved it. And it’s because it’s all about the team, it’s not about me. That’s a special feeling.”
It is credit to Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum that Leach is thriving under this approach, while the captain and head coach will also draw satisfaction that their messaging of positivity with the bat is not being confused for recklessness. After the 281-run whirlwind first-up, England throttled back to four runs an over and though there were stumbles – not least Zak Crawley and Ollie Pope run out needlessly – two relative newcomers in Duckett and Brook delivered excellent, controlled knocks.
Whether Pakistan can replicate this in their run chase remains to be seen, the hosts having completely lost their way after Robinson’s second delivery of the match boomed past Babar’s drive and lit up the zing bails on a hazy morning. Tongue out and arms outstretched in celebration, Robinson had again shown his skills with the older ball, this his sixth wicket of the series and a fifth after the 30-over mark.
Robinson’s five-over spell seemed to have sucked the ambition out of Babar’s teammates instantly, their relative cruise to 142 at four runs an over suddenly stopped in its tracks as a collective state of anxiety descended. That said, Stokes deserves credit, rethinking his plans overnight, offering Leach extra protection against the slog-sweep at deep midwicket and the left-arm spinner profited from the indecision that resulted.
Twice Leach struck the ball after being lofted over the top, his three figures brought up when Saud Shakeel torched a compact half-century with a mis-hit that was held superbly by Jimmy Anderson. The follow-up rather summed up Pakistan’s malaise at large, Mohammad Rizwan taking a painstaking 28 balls to get off the mark only to be bowled on the backfoot by a delivery that jagged past his crooked flick to leg.
Thereafter Pakistan began handing early Christmas presents to their guests. Mohammad Nawaz drilled Leach to mid-off and Joe Root struck twice in an over, Agha Salman inducing a collective sound from the crowd not dissimilar to his first name by chipping to midwicket and Mohammad Ali edging to Crawley at slip via his pad.
Mark Wood then wrapped things up with a reminder of how most tails struggle with pace. After bullseyeing Zahid’s front pad lbw, he then snuffed out a last-wicket stand of 23 between Abrar and Faheem Ashraf when the latter holed out with an extravagant flick. Wood, never shy of a smile at the best of times, could scarcely hide his delight at Pakistan’s latest press of the self-destruct button.
England had somehow pilfered a bewildering eight for 60 in 28.3 overs before lunch. Though Abrar soon began flicking his array of leg-spinners and googlies, bowling the promoted Will Jacks on the sweep and having Root caught superbly at short leg for 21, first Duckett and then Brook demonstrated there is more to this team than some might assume.
Though Duckett fell before the close, bowled by a long-hop from Abrar that kept low, if anything it further underlined the balance of power.