Pakistan captain Azhar Ali reflected on the disappointment of "losing the one session in the series that really mattered" following Pakistan's 1-0 series defeat against England. With the third Test ending in a rain-affected draw, England clinched the series courtesy of the hosts' dramatic victory in the first Test at Old Trafford. It was a game Pakistan dominated for much of the first three days, but a 139-run sixth wicket partnership between then-out-of-form Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes led England to a stunning three-wicket win.
"The first Test match cost us, of course," Azhar said. "If we'd won that match, we'd be sitting here as series winners. But there are plenty of positives, even though of course we made mistakes. Unfortunately, the session that mattered most all series we lost. Sometimes that can disrupt a dressing room, and people can start pointing fingers at each other. But we stayed together as a group and tried to move forward. That's a good sign for us."
While the final result came down to particularly fine margins, one evident point of difference between the two sides was the balance of the starting eleven. While England had abundant lower-order allrounders that ensured they were never either a batsman or a bowler light - even in Ben Stokes' absence - Pakistan appeared split between playing a bowling allrounder in Shadab Khan or the left-handed batsman Fawad Alam.
They went for Shadab in the first Test, where he ended up impressing more with the bat than the ball, before switching to Alam for the remainder of the series, who struggled to get going. Azhar said, however, Shadab was hard done by to be dropped, and hinted at a promotion up the order for wicketkeeper batsman Mohammad Rizwan.
"Balance is created in the side by medium pace allrounders," he said. "We have Faheem Ashraf with us, and he's working really hard to break into the side. The way Rizwan batted and kept is a huge plus. Even the way Shadab played that first Test, it was very difficult to leave him out, his performance did not merit being dropped.
"But the conditions necessitated it. Rizwan's form gives us confidence we can consider him a proper batsman and push him up to number six. Shadab has shown he's good enough to bat at number seven. We have to find someone at eight if the conditions are good for seam bowling, so the role we're looking for is a lower-order seam bowler."
It was a series that promised much for Pakistan's youthful side, with particular intrigue surrounding how tearaway teenage pace bowler Naseem Shah would perform on his first tour of England. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down all cricket, he whet the appetite, giving a glimpse of the fearsome ability he possesses by becoming the youngest player to take a Test match hat-trick in a game against Bangladesh in Rawalpindi. Things didn't go quite as swimmingly for him in England - he managed just three wickets - but the deliveries that Ollie Pope and Joe Root fell victim to made clear how high the ceiling was for him.
"We all know Naseem Shah's talent," Azhar said. "The way he got top players like Joe Root out and how he bowled was encouraging. Yes, he's inexperienced, but he's been with us for a few series and he's learning. He's got pace. We all hoped, obviously, he'd get more wickets but it's cricket. Sometimes that doesn't go for you.
"Even Babar, who everyone had high expectations of, batted very well, I thought. The conditions were hostile for batting, but the authority with which he played few other batsmen did. He's a world-class player, and he always dominates other bowling line-ups. All you need is one mistake to get out, and there are a few things you can always look at when you don't win the series. Of course, Babar will know if you get to 60, you should score a hundred. He knows that. But it's cricket, and that happens. His consistency is an example for all of us."
Until the first-innings hundred in the third Test, the series involved significant personal strife for the relatively inexperienced captain himself. Aside from a concerning loss of form - particularly away from home - Azhar copped heavy criticism for some of his tactics on that fourth day at Old Trafford, where he was deemed to have been too passive as Buttler and Woakes charged England to victory. Azhar insisted, however, the thought of stepping down never entered his mind, his thoughts firmly on the series ahead.
"During the series, the contest itself is all I was focused on. There were tough times when we lost the first Test, and I was blamed for it a fair bit. But I was always focusing on how we could turn the series around. Our team management got us quickly back on track, even though we were all hurting after the first Test.
"We feel sad but what's done is done. We can learn from the experience. The disappointment will remain because we came not just to draw the series but to win. We missed our opportunity. Credit goes to England too for performing well under pressure. We'll try and learn from that mistake and grab the opportunity when it comes next time."