Match Analysis

Agha Salman's spark helps Pakistan shift Rawalpindi narrative

His quickfire fifty played a part in what has suddenly turned into a very exciting Test match

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Agha Salman celebrates his fifty, Pakistan vs England, 1st Test, Rawalpindi, 4th day, December 4, 2022

Agha Salman equipped himself well at a time Pakistan needed him  •  Getty Images

For the first three days, it was England who shouted their intentions from Rawalpindi's rooftops; they were here to win this Test match. That was made obvious by the record-smashing onslaught of the first day. Will Jacks said 24 hours later Pakistan looked like they were content with a draw, whereas his side was going all in on victory. Joe Root on day three echoed those sentiments. Pakistan, meanwhile, were rather more taciturn; the match situation had ensured a more optimistic assessment would have bordered on the delusional.
But at stumps on Sunday evening, setting up a final day climax this pitch scarcely deserves, Pakistan's tenor began to change, and the first hints of confidence seeped back into their outlook. A surprise declaration at tea from England had set them a target of 343 on a surface that looks like it could withstand another four days before the first signs of deterioration. It looked foolhardy at the time, though two quick wickets - including that of Babar Azam - had sceptics swiftly putting their faith in England's intrepid tactics once more. Add to that an injury to Azhar Ali that threatens further involvement in this match, and a tail that begins at No. 8 for Pakistan, and the ingredients for a historic English win had begun to blend together nicely.
But an unbeaten half-century stand under the setting sun between Imam-ul-Haq and Saud Shakeel, with neither batter looking troubled in the least, meant Pakistan's hopes of running England's score down were reinvigorated. Pakistan now need a further 263 runs for victory, and with a full day's play left, the draw has been taken out of the equation altogether. This time, though, it is Pakistan who were bullish with their match evaluation.
"We're talking in the camp that we need to go and win this match," Agha Salman at the end of play. "We don't know how the pitch will react on the fifth day, but we have it in our minds that we'll go for it and try to win it."
England managed to pack so much into another truncated day of Test cricket it's easy to forget that when play commenced, Salman was the only roadblock to the visitors taking complete control over this Test. Pakistan were still 160 runs behind in their first innings when the seventh wicket fell overnight. A collapse from that point would have left the hosts facing an insurmountable target and the best part of two days to survive. The sledgehammer is England's scoring rate had virtually guaranteed that.
But Salman, playing just his third Test, and the first at home, counter-attacked in a 67 run-stand where his partner, Zahid Mehmood, scored just 5. By the time he fell, Pakistan had whittled England's lead down to just over 100, and taken most of the first session out of the game. It was a breezy knock (though given England's truculence, that is relative), his 67-ball 53 decorated with seven fours and a six.
"The management tells us to play as we naturally play," he said. "My game is such I try and score runs and attack. I applied myself today and looked to keep them on the back foot. When you're playing with the tail, you know you have to score runs, so that decision gets made for you."
The day wasn't all rosy for him, though. With England making a mockery of a Pakistan bowling attack further depleted by the loss of Haris Rauf, he had the misfortune to be called upon to turn his arm over for five manic overs. England plundered 47 off those 30 balls, but Salman said that was simply a matter of accepting how England play and the advantageous position they found themselves in at the time.
"When we started bowling, we tried to restrict the runs and not give them boundary opportunities. But you have to give them credit, they're playing positive cricket. That shows in their declaration too, which was quite positive. The way they've been playing in the last few months, this was expected from them, and we believed they'd put us in to bat around this sort of target. But now we have a chance to win, and that's what we're aiming for."
There's little reason to doubt England's commitment, but the tone post-match had shifted ever so subtly. The visitors had spoken only of the pursuit of victory over the first three days, but for the first time this Test, assistant coach Paul Collingwood framed the same point in slightly different terms.
"It's been pretty clear we're willing to lose games for the sake of putting ourselves in a position to won. Some will say it was an early declaration, we'll see tomorrow if it was. We're not scared of losing, it takes the consequences away from the players - tomorrow we can hopefully get on the right side of it.
"It's exciting isn't it - on a pitch that's been docile, to be in a position to watch an exciting game on the final day is great for everyone. The bigger picture for Ben Stokes and Brendon McCullum is for Test cricket is to be entertaining."
That now looks set to happen in spite of the conditions both sides have had to play in, rather than because of them. In a Test where every string has been pulled by England. But tomorrow, they might find out that in Test cricket, control and victory are two very different things.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000