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Match Analysis

England feel the funk in bid to overcome unforgiving Pindi pitch

Stokes rings his changes and keeps attacking intent, but moribund surface is winning so far

Ben Stokes and James Anderson plot their tactics as England toil in the field  •  AFP/Getty Images

Ben Stokes and James Anderson plot their tactics as England toil in the field  •  AFP/Getty Images

It doesn't matter if you score 657, as England did in Rawalpindi, or even 1,000, as Zak Crawley joked they might on the evening of day one. Big runs get you headlines - and a few records - but wickets win you matches.
Even a stranger to the format can work out: if Test cricket allows you an endless supply of one and just 20 of the other, the latter is clearly more valuable. It's like scaling a mountain. Getting to the summit in double-quick time is cool and all. But you can only say you've conquered it once you've got down in one piece. And as remarkable as England's first innings is, beating any of their previous scores in Asia and at a world-record run-rate, coming out victorious will make it that little bit more worthwhile.
But, as Pakistan closed on 181 for 0 - taking the pitch's tally to 828 runs in two days for the loss of just 10 wickets - the prospects for the concluding three days of the match were veering towards the tedious. Getting to the bottom of this one might be like trying to get down a flight of stairs designed by MC Escher.
Not that England are thinking this situation is beyond them, certainly not yet. As Ben Stokes spoke to the umpires when bad light took the players off once more, leaving Joe Root to flick off the bails at the Pavilion End and complete the formalities of an early close, England's spirits were seemingly undimmed, if not their bodies.
"It is [flat]," confirmed Will Jacks, who hit 30 from 29 balls, then bowled 12 wicketless overs for 50 in his first on-field day as a Test cricketer.. "But I guess there's a little bit there, maybe? It's only two days, there are three long days ahead of us. A little bit of grip, so we hope that will increase over the next few days."
It's easy to overlook the bowling aspect of this era, and understandably so when the other suit is so breathtaking, but in many ways, it's the most crucially considered aspect of this new England regime. If the batting is broadly defined by an absence of thought - "it's only you and the bowler there ... just watch the ball," as Jonny Bairstow succinctly put it at Trent Bridge last summer - then the curation of England's efforts in the field is where the real thinking goes.
Throughout the English summer we saw consistent attacking fields: slips kept in for longer than usual, catchers employed in peculiar areas, bumper plans - more refined than previous versions, it should be said - opted for sooner rather than later. "It's great for me," James Anderson said, and you'd think he has bowled to every conceivable field across his 19 years at this level. "It's given me a slightly different mindset with the ball. Trying to always take wickets, not just trying to hold up an end or keep the economy rate low."
That Anderson rests overnight on figures of eight overs, two maidens, 0 for 16 is not reflective of a change of tactics, or a regression to an old, conservative norm. England were funky from the off.
Both Anderson and Ollie Robinson were afforded three slips, before the third was deemed redundant. Ben Duckett spent most of their collective opening spell stationed at leg slip, finer for Imam-ul-Haq given a left-hander's penchant for tucking off the hip. There was a catching midwicket and straight silly mid-on employed, and indeed a short leg to the seamers. At times those positions in front of the batter were doubled, and it was notable early on that Stokes put himself at a three-quarters cover: at times he walked in so far he could have probably shaken hands with either Imam or Abdullah Shafique by the time the ball was released.
Following a 20-minute mini-session before lunch, the spinners were brought on in the afternoon session, similarly reinforced with bat-pads and short legs for the right- and left-hander. Jack Leach, emboldened by Stokes' faith in him over the summer, tried a few different release points, while Jacks would eventually swap a straighter line for some consistency outside off. Leach was even afforded a leg gully, who was close enough to the action to warrant wearing a helmet.
The day ended with Stokes sending down three overs split between two tactics. He started short, with bouncers at both batters before searching for reverse-swing with a fuller, straighter examination of Shafique. By then, all England could hold on to was the fact that the bounce is getting a little more unreliable. They could do with that degrading as quickly as the sun sets in Rawalpindi. While their batting has bought them time in this match, bad light has already taken out 32 overs from two days' play.
Is there scope for anything different? It's hard to say, especially so early in the tour. The morning moisture might assist a ball that still seems to be holding up pretty well. Perhaps the only thing they might wince at is the lack of a point of difference or two, on a pitch that even PCB chairman Ramiz Raja lambasted as "embarrassing" during his Friday lunchtime media rounds. Perhaps an express quick and a wrist spinner? Sadly the former, Mark Wood, was ruled out of this Test well before a virus ran through the squad. The latter, Liam Livingstone, joined him in the changing room just before tea after jarring his knee while fielding on the boundary.
Luck is also handy, and England might consider that the two missed opportunities to remove Shafique in the space of seven deliveries were a case of misfortune rather than straight-up negligence.
The first - on 54 - was a glove down the leg side off Anderson that Ollie Pope did well to reach but could not gather cleanly. Might a fit Ben Foakes have got there? Again, it's hard to say, but it's a hypothetical that does a double-twist when you consider that without Jacks - a late addition after Foakes felt unwell on Thursday morning - the gap in the bowling left by Livingstone's absence would have been considerably greater. Then, on 56, Leach leapt in expectation when Shafique guided a length delivery into the midriff of Keaton Jennings (on as a sub) at short leg. The timing on the shot, however, allowed it to burst straight in and out.
"We're going to have to take a few worldie catches and have a few crazy moments go our way to win," Jacks admitted.
"There's only one team that can win it. Pakistan look like they are happy with a draw, the way they are batting. With this team environment we've got and our leaders, we'll be pushing for the win, no matter what happens."
You have to admire that enthusiasm because it is sincere and it speaks to how quickly new blood has been inculcated in this side. Stokes will spend the evening racking his brains for ways to get more creative, primarily through schemes in the field but maybe also through trying to engage Pakistan in a bit of a stand-off. Whatever patience England need to adopt will have to be reciprocated ten-fold by Pakistan's batters, who are still 476 behind with three days to play.
On Monday, Brendon McCullum, speaking on behalf of his captain at the start of the week, said there would be no draws. "If we get beat, Pakistan, we know, will have played well. I expect us to play well and if we get outplayed, that's okay too."
For now, it looks like both sides are going to finish second to this pitch, which looks like walking away with all the joy and a second demerit point in nine months. Unless, of course, something spectacular happens. Which, given England's recent history, is not totally out of the question.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo