On Friday evening, play closed with Alastair Cook unbeaten on 64. England were leading by 17, an unlikely advantage given the balance of play over the first two days. The Edgbaston full-house rose to him, and to Alex Hales who had gone to 50 from the final ball of the day. The captain returned to the dressing-room amidst a flurry of back slaps. He had batted with a hitherto unseen freedom, as if the shackles of responsibility had been thrown to the wind, and thus inspired his men. It was a brilliant example of leadership, which comes in so many forms.

He unclipped the armour, towelled himself down and remarked to the team that the game felt like a boxing match. For two days England had taken the punches, now they were giving a few back. It was, he figured, going to be much the same story over the next two days. There have been periods during Cook's career that his default position would have been to soak up the blows until the opponent wore himself out. Not these days. Confident and proud, he had hammered away - cuts and flicks off his pads, of course, but some magnificent driving of the ball too. The experience of 10,000 runs and more served him well. He saw the moment and took it.

By Saturday evening, Cook was even more pleased than his wildest dream might have allowed. Though he fell early in the day himself, the others continued the momentum. Not that it was easy. Pakistan at first bowled impressively in an attacking manner and then, sensing the ball softening and the pitch becoming flatter, Pakistan bowled meanly. Ball after ball was speared wide of off-stump in an attempt to control the tempo of the match. Rather than panic, England changed down the gears, waiting until fatigue betrayed the tourists' plan. When it did, England cashed in to a man.

There was another virtuoso performance from Joe Root, cut short when a hundred beckoned. No man does tempo like Root. He brings movement and range to the game, adapting his method to the requirement of the moment. At the other end, James Vince watched and learnt, the result of which was the best Test innings he has played - a combination of beautiful flow and a previously unidentified steel. For a while, Gary Ballance let the game come to him but, once settled, he added a hint of risk to his otherwise risk averse nature. Johnny Bairstow hit them hard and ran them ragged. Moeen Ali sucked in the Edgbaston air that he so loves and paraded his touch and timing. England were suddenly miles in front and able to declare when they chose. Each one of the chosen batsmen had thrown the punches their captain had asked for.

Cook then put the match out of Pakistan's reach. It is his way. Old-timers reckon you keep the chaser interested, to encourage a hopeful response that leads to mistakes. The moderns reckon you crush all hope and choke the chaser to death.

The problem England faced was that the ball would not move. Sami Aslam, at just 20 years of age, worked this out and played each one back down the line from whence it came. It was a masterclass, from an apprentice. He is the Pakistani cricketer of the hour. For the second time in the match, Azhar Ali batted with a nice feel, ensuring his team stayed in motion. Those who get stuck often find to their horror that they are sinking in quicksand.

At 79 for 1, all seemed well with the Pakistan resistance. Then Cook came up with the first game-breaker. He convinced Moeen to flight the ball wide of off-stump but to keep trying to spin it hard. This brought his action into sync with his wrist. Suddenly, the ball came out with increased revs and the seam at 45 degrees. Cook himself went to gully, a most unusual position to an off-spinner and, bingo. Azhar drove hard to a ball that drifted away before it dipped just a little as the drive reached the point of impact. It fairly flew from the edge of the bat to the gully, where the captain reacted with haste and effect. He said afterwards that he didn't know much about it. He failed to mention that you never really do when you field that close; you just let instinct work its magic.

They all rushed to a huddle of unbridled joy, except Cook who stood alone for a moment, slightly crouched, shaking the hands he had made into fists

The second game-breaker was less to do with Cook than the groundsman, whose wicket-ends from previous matches were suitably worn and dusty. The ball that pitched on the dry pitch, also bounced across and around these. After a few overs, Cook thought how handy, this thing might reverse swing. Which it did.

Soon after 3 o'clock, Steve Finn was roaring in - you ain't seen nothing like the mighty Finn. He found a smidgeon of movement away from the bat which was quite enough at that pace and when delivered with such accuracy. Even Misbah succumbed. Then Chris Woakes was called back instead of Moeen and he fired the ball at the stumps and pads with an almost indecent expectation. Confidence is the most wonderful drug. Four big fish fell for a single run.

Aslam watched on, doubtless confused by his elders but otherwise untroubled. All match, his judgement of what to play and what to leave alone had been unimpeachable. Tea was delayed to acknowledge the chance of a result within the 20-minute period of extension. Three minutes of that period remained when Sami shouldered arms to a fast ball that trimmed his off bail. There are two types of leave - a good one and a bad one. Ouch, his pain was our pain for this young man's courage, temperament and technical application deserved to take the game to the wire. He knew, as we knew, there was no saving the game now. The mighty Finn had won the day.

James Anderson popped up with another wicket after tea; Stuart Broad too. The last pair delayed the inevitable and so Cook returned to magic Moeen and the man-of the-match (for the two street-smart innings he played) rewarded his captain's faith with a sharp catch off his own bowling. They all rushed to a huddle of unbridled joy, except Cook who stood alone for a moment, slightly crouched, shaking the hands he had made into fists. The longer he plays, the more animated he becomes. His celebrations are ever so slightly showy now, which tells us he is comfortable in the captain's skin and ecstatic at the results being achieved.

These 1,200 words have included mentions of Cook, Hales, Root, Vince, Ballance, Bairstow, Moeen, Woakes, Broad, Finn, Anderson. It was not planned so, it is simply how the words turned out. There may not have been an England victory that so equally shared the efforts of each player. And there cannot have been many that were fashioned from a first innings deficit of 103.

If Cook's team win at the Oval, they could go to number 1 in the world rankings. The captain has a lot to answer for.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK