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Analysis

England stay true to their word on changing the face of Test cricket

Commitment to the brand just became a little more meaningful

Ben Stokes dismissed Babar Azam as England made early inroads  •  Getty Images

Ben Stokes dismissed Babar Azam as England made early inroads  •  Getty Images

Declaring to give your opponents a target of 343 in four sessions on a pitch where 1,500 runs had already been scored at a rate of 5.14 per over. A short-ball tactic with the brand new ball with just one fielder (gully) in the cordon before he was switched to leg gully. James Anderson, the greatest swing bowler of all time, kept out of the attack until the ninth over and then joining in the bumper barrage. Joe Root batting left-handed. Shining the ball on Jack Leach's head.
Pick out any of those in isolation and you could probably make a strong case for England to be stopped. Test cricket is serious business, you know, what with its whites, history and penchant for low strike rates and high society. Right sorts of family, and all that. You're barely allowed in with trainers, never mind skipping through the joint with such brash disregard for how things are supposed to be done.
With context, however, it all made sense. Chaotic brush strokes in a wider piece of abstract expressionism hard to compute at first glance but impossible to take your eyes off.
England could have batted Pakistan out of the match, but that would have made their route to victory trickier considering how easy it would have been to deadbat on a surface that has stayed together longer than your grandparents. The hosts chased down 344 against Sri Lanka just two games ago, and with 263 left to get with eight wickets remaining - provided Azhar Ali does return after retiring hurt - they'll fancy this. Which is exactly the point.
Given there was precious little lateral movement off the seam or through the air, going short immediately served a dual purpose. It is usually a secondary tactic which means its real value is hard to quantify because batters are often set before it is employed. Abdullah Shafique's top-edge pull-hook, Azhar's blow to the hand - both by Ollie Robinson - and the precious wicket of Babar Azam that silenced the crowd and sent a few home vindicated the approach. The other aspect to banging it in early is fast-tracking you to a point when the ball might reverse. And though we saw little of that in the evening session, the fact only 20 overs have been bowled in the fourth innings means the ball will still be hard - and thus travel through the air quicker - if it does appear at some point in the morning session tomorrow. With the early morning dew adding moisture to the pitch, conventional movement will also be on the cards. There will also be another new ball to come, if required.
Root's turn as a southpaw was a reaction to leg spinner Zahid Mahmood targeting the rough outside the right-hander's leg stump in a bid to slow down the rate of scoring. The sweep shot played led to a catch that should have been taken by the fielder stationed at what had been backward point. As for shining the ball on Leach's head, maybe that's where we come up short. Bald tampering? Who knows.
Perhaps those last two bits highlight how true to their word England are when it comes to going about their Test cricket in a new way. Unwavering intent, a sense of fun and a respectful understanding that, sometimes, the traditional whims of the format can only get you so far.
"I can't think of another England team that, on this pitch, would have given themselves a chance to win this game," said former captain Michael Atherton on Sky Sports.
"In my day we were always worried about consequence," reflected 68-Test veteran Paul Collingwood, now assistant coach of this group. "Ringing the wife, what you guys (the press) would say."
There were times over the summer when the utterances from those in the dressing room - players and staff - felt a little contrived. Talk of entertaining fans (fine), redefining Test cricket (yeah, OK), saving Test cricket (steady) and putting smiles on faces after the Covid-19 pandemic (noble, but come on). While it wasn't as cringe as Gal Gadot and her mates singing into the front of their camera phones, there was a sense England were being too altruistic.
But they have stayed true to their word, specifically of not resorting to draws, and it strikes more of a chord here because they won the toss and batted first for the first time under Brendon McCullum and Ben Stokes. Commitment to the brand was a little easier in the summer when it was about chasing. Being willing to defend less than you needed to is a little more meaningful.
"There's no shame in losing, if you put yourself in a position to win," said Collingwood. "We're not here to draw, we're here for results. If it goes against us, we've still made it entertaining."
Does it matter if England lose? Well yes and no.
When you consider how seriously their fans take Test cricket, defeat will jar. In the context of this match, surely the amount they have invested in it from the get-go means it will hurt more if they come out on the wrong side?
And at the same time, probably not? England aren't going to make this cycle's final of the World Test Championship. Given the historical context of this first Test match in Pakistan since 2005, let alone this series, why not do something memorable with it?
England, of course, do not think they are going to lose. Because they believe there is nothing to lose.
One of the more remarkable things about this group is how the two in charge have managed to imprint themselves upon everyone who steps through the dressing-room door. Both are well insulated from the ups and downs of their respective gigs. McCullum could walk away tomorrow and pick up where he left off as a franchise tzar. Stokes, two World Cup final-winning cameos and plenty else with the red ball, did not need captaincy to enhance his standing among fans.
Indeed, you could argue he's perhaps gone too far the other way given his approach to batting. His dismissal today, flaying a delivery too short to flay, straight to cover for a three-ball duck, reflects his general attitude since taking over from Root at the start of the summer. It is almost a deliberate tanking of his average to play an extreme version of what he wants from everyone else. He is Sam Neil hooting and hollering with a flare in hand to distract the T-Rex so the kids can get away. Here on day four, those kids did what they needed to do.
Zak Crawley punched 50 from 48 to go with his first-innings 122, Harry Brook put the frighteners up Gilbert Jessop once more with 87 off 65 after a stunning 153, and Will Jacks was emboldened enough to take 6 for 161 - a maiden five-wicket haul in all first-class cricket - before a quickfire 24 off 13. They were the main propellers of a third innings that went at 7.36 an over and gave their skipper the opportunity to walk the walk.
"It's magnificent in terms of the bigger picture," concluded Collingwood. "When Baz and Ben took over, the number one priority was to make Test cricket entertaining, like T20 has been, and it's the most important thing.
"When you ask players what they want to play, it's Test cricket, but we have to make it more entertaining. We already feel like pioneers, the way we're batting is putting opposition under pressure. It's exciting to experience. If the byproduct is winning, so be it. If we lose and it's been exciting, it's still a win for Test cricket."
To many, England have left the door open unnecessarily for Pakistan. But they've done so with every intention of inviting them in. To have a bit of fun and see what's what. Pakistan, to their credit, are obliging. Just when it looked like the Rawalpindi pitch was winning out, we are going into day five with all results on the table. As it should be.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo