It would have been fitting had Ben Stokes been named Player-of-the-Match. For his captaincy alone. As the sun was setting, England won a Test in Pakistan while suggesting the sun might be rising afresh on Test matches in general. Test cricket is serious business, but the way to succeed is to play it in a fun way.
England kept to their new philosophy, scoring at 6.5 runs an over in the first innings and 7.36 in the second. Cricket is a game of time and space. And by scoring at that rate, England gave themselves both, allowing the bowlers enough time to bowl Pakistan out and the fielders enough space to crowd the batsman. The sporting declaration gave Pakistan four sessions in which to make 343, not impossible on a track where 1500 runs had already been scored.
Change in strategy
Traditionally, no captain likes to take chances in the first Test of a series. The temptation is to keep the fast bowlers fresh for the next Test rather than inspire them to bowl aggressively for a win in the current one. Cricket is often played for the future, even at the cost of keeping the present unremarkable. But when what is pleasing is also rewarding, sport is doubly blessed. If the McCullum-Stokes formula spreads, Test cricket has nothing to worry about.
No one would have criticised either team playing for a draw, certainly not the media which love to say things like “Both teams had scored over 550 in their first innings; neither deserved to lose.”
Tennis legend John McEnroe spoke up for all sportsmen when he admitted years ago that “there was always a devil inside me which I had to fight — the fear of failure.” By eliminating, or at least controlling that fear, England have reached a peak of the sport. And while that may or may not be confirmed statistically at the end of the season, it might still help change the way cricket is played. England are not afraid to try something new or go against received wisdom. And they do it with flair, a word not always associated with English cricket.
The downside is that to succeed consistently, this approach requires more luck than usual. There will be times when the dramatic innings or the challenging declaration or the inspired but illogical bowling change fail and the team loses. That is when England’s philosophy will be tested. Do they continue as usual or play safe? Will a draw suddenly look attractive?
Stokes is changing not only the players’ attitude, but the perception of the media too. Expectations will continue to soar, the search for the cracks in the apparent perfection of team and tactics will intensify.
A Test match that began under a cloud of uncertainty in Rawalpindi, with England barely managing to field eleven players after a bug laid many of them low, was lifted out of the ordinary by the imagination and will of England’s captain. This is total cricket — where everybody has signed up for the new vision and communicates the sheer enjoyment of the game. Victories have followed belief.
On a track that saw seven centuries in the first innings, it is remarkable that a result was achieved. Pakistan looked to be in control for about half their innings before Ollie Robinson induced the slide.
Former captain Joe Root batted left-handed for a spell in the second innings (to counter leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood), hinting perhaps at the future where players may be ambidextrous. It was in keeping with the spirit of experiment that has suffused this team.
Abhor a draw
The last time a Test was played in Rawalpindi, both Pakistan and Australia scored over 450 in the first innings; the fourth innings wasn’t even played as Pakistan finished at 252 without loss in their second. England’s decision to risk the odd defeat in pursuit of victory — which is how cricket should be played — has seen them win seven of their last eight Tests, losing only one. This is a team that abhors drawn matches.
England, who taught the world to play cricket are now teaching it how to play better Test cricket. When winning isn’t everything, it is surprising how often you win.