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Match Analysis

Pakistan's craven conservatism no match for England team on a mission

Determination not to lose at all costs defeats the purpose of inviting the big teams to play

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
James Anderson was ecstatic after removing Mohammad Rizwan during England's victory push  •  AFP/Getty Images

James Anderson was ecstatic after removing Mohammad Rizwan during England's victory push  •  AFP/Getty Images

It was a scene of high comedy, and yet also the most succinctly damaging assessment of where Pakistan's Test cricket sits. With half an hour to go in the Test and the sun sinking rapidly beneath the Shoaib Akhtar Enclosure, No. 11 Mohammad Ali decided to pop off to the bathroom, timing it to coincide with the end of the final drinks break, desperate to drain a few more seconds out of this Test match.
As fourth umpire Asif Yaqoob frogmarched Ali swiftly back to the middle as England waited impatiently to finish Pakistan off, the optics were brutal: Pakistan would literally rather hide in the toilet than set up to win a Test match.


Early winter had just crept in and cricket season was starting. The square at Rawalpindi Cricket Ground was just about ready, having seen off a first-class season that offered an engrossing contest between bat and ball. This was the first time this particular strip would be used for a Test match since the format returned to Pakistan in 2019, and it couldn't look readier. There was enough grass on this wicket to suggest lessons had been learned from the debacle nine months ago, when this venue had accumulated 1,177 runs and one demerit point.
The next morning, the England contingent landed at Islamabad airport from their training base in Abu Dhabi to presidential-style security and cordoned-off roads. Amid the frenzied activity around the visitors, it was easy to miss something equally significant taking place at the place they'd spend much of the next week. By the time they arrived at the cricket ground, there wasn't a blade of grass to be seen on the surface.
Over the next five days, England ensured Pakistan were left as nakedly exposed as the pitch they had prepared. Showing what was possible even in the most unconducive conditions, England found one more move every time it seemed Pakistan had set them up for stalemate.
When Pakistan pushed their field out, England simply hit it over them. When Pakistan looked to shut up shop, England brought their fielders up so close it would have breached 2020's social distancing guidelines. When the ball didn't swing, England scuffed it up by thumping it short into the lifeless surface, reaping the rewards with late movement on the fifth afternoon. No sooner had Pakistan found a hiding place than England flushed them back out yet again. Pakistan took every precaution to prevent what they feared would be a humiliating defeat, and yet, the victory England conjured up was more chastening than any three-day thumping could have been.
Pakistan have spent the best part of two decades trying to lure the big teams, or the "Western bloc", as Ramiz Raja pointedly put it last year, back home. So when a deal was struck that saw Australia, England and New Zealand agree to play Test cricket in Pakistan in the space of ten months, it was more than either fans or administrators could have imagined in their wildest dreams just a few years earlier. Since then, however, the surfaces Pakistan has prepared for these series would make younger fans in Pakistan wonder what they'd been missing anyway. What was the point of playing at home against the best teams if it was deliberately designed to be the worst possible spectacle?
Before being appointed chairman, Ramiz had one of the most-followed YouTube channels in Pakistan, known for regularly entreating the side to play with more daleri (bravery) and lambasting them when they didn't. That fiery, truculent attitude was reflected in his first press conference since becoming chairman, and he cannot be accused of changing his tune in the following months.
Repeatedly, however, this Pakistan side under the stewardship of Ramiz, Babar Azam and this team management have shown that they're willing to wound, but afraid to strike. The neutralisation of the first Test against Australia could be justified to some extent, what with Australia's pace battery and Pakistan missing key fast-bowling personnel. But the three Tests that followed have shown it up for the cravenly conservative template that it was, rather than the shrewd tactic the team management wanted us to believe.
Australia is a kind of mythical sea-monster for Ramiz, anyway, one to be spoken of in hushed tones rather than competed with in full flow, but against an England side whose seam attack posed none of the same menace, Pakistan could not find the daleri within themselves to compete on even terms.
Bazball might be as tired a cliché as daleri, but at least England actually stay the course with it. Pakistan spent the previous evening insisting they were here to win this match, suddenly finding their voices after England's munificent declaration seemed to take a draw out of the equation.
But on the fifth morning, that Pakistan talk of victory felt increasingly like a fever dream. Out there in reality, they spent the first 14 overs scoring just 13 runs, with England bowling eight maidens in the 12 overs before drinks. James Anderson and Ollie Robinson kept the pressure, and the field, up, while Pakistan blocked, nudged and left. They had made clear they wanted nothing less than a draw from this match, and despite England's best offers, nothing more than that, either. If ever there was an exhibition of contrasts - in style, philosophy and ambition - this Test was it.
It isn't just the chairman though. Babar Azam's own penchant for conservatism, much like his presence in the Pakistan side, straddles all three formats. Mohammad Yousuf was already in Multan today, apparently to have a chat with the pitch curator. Saqlain Mushtaq is likely figuring out how to balance the scales of cosmic justice rather than balance the team he improbably finds himself in charge of. The circlejerk of enablement is complete.
Even when Pakistan took control of individual passages of play, England recognised them for the aberrations that they were. With Azhar Ali, a man living on borrowed time anyway but the only recognised batter standing between England and an inexplicably long Pakistani tail, England brought one more fielder up. When he did fall with the job unfinished - as he was destined to, perhaps, as his career drags towards its unseemly close - Pakistan's defences were fatally breached.
Soon, England would have 11 fielders close to the bat as they scrambled to triumph in a game Pakistan had tried to ensure was unwinnable (but more importantly, unlosable). Rawalpindi might be a stone's throw from the seat of power in Pakistan, the place where every decision that matters to this country is made. But it was Ben Stokes' men who felt at home against a Pakistan set-up that, at present, barely seem able to comprehend England's philosophy, let alone replicate it.
England were the ones struck down by illness before the start of this Test, but the malaise that afflicts Pakistan shows no signs of being short-term.

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