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Everything goes to plan for Pakistan, but not quite their day

They chose to bat in potentially the best batting conditions of this Test, most of their batters got starts, but somehow England are still very much in this game

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Azhar Ali, in his final Test, got a start, but like others in the line-up, couldn't kick on  •  Getty Images

Azhar Ali, in his final Test, got a start, but like others in the line-up, couldn't kick on  •  Getty Images

This, perhaps, is what everything going to plan for Pakistan looks like. They won the toss and batted first. They wanted to prepare a turning wicket, and this one was turning as early as the first session. Azhar Ali, playing his last Test match, struck up a typically gritty 71-run partnership with Babar Azam before lunch, who also scored 78. Everyone between Nos. 2 and 7 got into double figures, and Agha Salman demonstrated encouraging steel to score 56 and steer Pakistan away from a truly perilous position. The dreaded collapse, an unfortunate feature of this Test side of late, was nowhere to be seen, and before stumps, there was time enough to sneak in an early England wicket to ensure Pakistan had the last laugh.
And yet, none of it truly felt satisfying. Evidence of teething problems with a batting line-up in transition remain. Abdullah Shafique's fourth successive failure is a reminder of his relative inexperience at this level, and the prematureness of saddling him with unrealistic expectations. The jury on his opening partner remains out. Shan Masood today batted with a level of aggression that was as entertainingly elegant as it was brief; his 37-ball 30 is the highest strike rate of his Test career. Pakistan continue to be bedevilled by that most infuriatingly simple yet effective plan - a strangle down leg. It was what doomed Shan and then, off the last ball before lunch, Azhar.
Every time Pakistan appeared to claw their way back to parity, they were struck down again. Rehan Ahmed set Saud Shakeel up beautifully when Pakistan appeared in control at 162 for 3, while Mohammad Rizwan's optimistic hoick over mid-on never looked like clearing the ropes. If that appeared a self-inflicted wound, Babar's pursuit of a single that banked on presumed English ineptitude in the field and behind the stumps was death-dealing.
It was that moment which pained Pakistan coach Saqlain Mushtaq most, and contributed to a relatively negative outlook on a day when he might reasonably have argued the two sides shared spoils.
"I think we could have done better. Babar's dismissal wasn't a good sign for Pakistan. The way he was playing, the team was playing around him and it looked as if we could get 350-400. Azhar's dismissal was soft, too, and it happened at a time when we had control of the match. Those two dismissals meant we scored 75-100 runs fewer than we should have. This isn't a very bad total, but to restrict them, we'll have to play disciplined cricket and control their batters. We know the way they're going to play, but the early wicket will benefit us. We will have to play intelligent cricket to restrict them."
It was something of a curious innings from Pakistan, caught betwixt and between approaches: the sedate pacing of a regular innings and the preternatural outlook they employed for significant parts of today. Masood and Rizwan's aggression was something of a hallmark of an innings where the hosts flirted with four runs an over, their highest first-innings net run rate in Pakistan since Test cricket came home in 2019, and their second highest in the last 12 years. It was also responsible for at least five dismissals, but Saqlain said he did not wish to criticise positivity.
"There should be positive intent," he said. "Before Rizwan got out, he swept a couple of fours. The ball dipped on him, but I won't blame anyone for having positive intent. If you're trying to create pressure and being confident, that's fine. This could have gone to the boundary. I don't want to say anything more, but they have my backing and that of the batting coach."
Ever since the first Test, Pakistan have wanted to put runs on the board. Even if they didn't manage it in the numbers they were hoping for, today's flamboyance did suggest some of England's more enterprising characteristics might be rubbing off on them. Saqlain attempted, towards the end of the press conference, to put a more positive spin on the day.
"Tomorrow is crucial. We need to dismiss them as soon as possible. If we restrict them to 220 or so, we'll be in the driving seat. The wicket looks slow, and I think it'll get slower. Even the way Mark Wood is bowling, it's not really coming on to the bat. He's using bouncers and trying to squeeze us down leg. He'll have to think about his tactics here. He took one wicket today but he'll have to think harder because this wicket is getting slow."
Wood might have only taken one wicket, but once more England took all ten, on a day Pakistan chose to bat in what were theoretically the best batting conditions of the Test. It is perhaps emblematic of the different stages of development these two sides are at that, on a day when so much went to plan for Pakistan, it was still rather honours even at stumps.

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