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Match Analysis

England seek to sweep away the mystery as Abrar Ahmed presents a new spin challenge

England's attacking approach secures a foothold, where former sides might have crumbled

Ollie Pope gets low to reverse-sweep during his half-century  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Ollie Pope gets low to reverse-sweep during his half-century  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

It was almost like Pakistan knew what was coming when their official account framed debutant Abrar Ahmed as a "mystery spinner".
If Australian fast bowlers stop English batters from leaving the house, then unconventional twirlers from the subcontinent have tended to get them checking under their beds before they go to sleep. And with seven wickets on his first meeting with England, all before lunch on day one, we can add the 24-year-old to the list of Boogeymen.
On the face of it, he joins the likes of Abdul Qadir, Saqlain Mushtaq, Saeed Ajmal, and Abdur Rehman, all of whom have inflicted psychological damage on these opponents. There are many others, of course, but those four names happened to finish with career-bests against England. It will be some going if Abrar betters what he managed at the Multan Cricket Stadium on Friday, though he does potentially have three more goes at this team before the year is out.
This England side, however, are not like the others. While respect was given to Abrar's skill, the approach spoke of a lack of it. Instead of opting to go into their shell against their latest wrist-spinning and/or front-of-the-hand-ring-finger-flicker incarnation of Michael Myers, they decided to confront him head on, with hatchets of their own.
Did it work? Well, it's probably too early to say. But Abrar was taken for 114 in his 22 overs (an economy rate of 5.18) as England still managed 281 from 51.4 overs. And to judge by Duckett's punchy assessment of their day at the close, there'll be no psychological hangover to concern them. They certainly didn't die cowering.
Their weapon of retaliation? The sweep. For so long it has been seen as the last resort of the western batter against the turning ball (Pakistan haven't played the shot once in their reply so far), and on previous calamitous tours of Asia, it has seemed one step removed from the white flag. But it came to England's aid here. The positive option for the most enthusiastic stroke-makers in the game.
"Going harder" has been the McCullum-Stokes decree in the face of any kind of adversity. Up against an unfamiliar foe seeking to inflict some very familiar scars on the kind of pitch where they've been buried before, England were cavalier and calculated. Ollie Pope came out and smoked a reverse-sweep off Abrar through backward point for four, the very ball after Zak Crawley had been bowled through the gate with a googly. It was a shot usually premeditated when the bowler begins his run-up. Pope had decided his shot as soon as he got up from his seat in the dressing room, and started to make his way out in the middle.
As for its success rate, again, we might only really know when the game moves on and the pitch deteriorates further. But all in all, a form of sweep - conventional, reverse, switch hit, lap or paddle - was played 50 times, with 74 runs scored and six wickets lost. No doubt the worst of that last figure was Jack Leach switching hands and getting bowled on the move by Zahid Mahmood for a golden duck. Even the No.10, out of his comfort zone, was buying in wholeheartedly.
Since 2018-19, England's percentage of runs through sweeps off spinners is 25.6. Day one's mark of 33.2 was a notable uptick. It wasn't, however, as sweep-dominant as the Sri Lanka series at the start of 2021, when Joe Root almost single-handedly boosted the team to about 40 percent. Even those were mostly conventional. And it was in a winning cause, too.
However, the four matches in India that followed that tour perhaps offer the best comparison for the surface here, which spun almost immediately. All in all, 205 sweeps were played on that tour, 275 runs scored for 17 dismissals. Only Root (107 from 63) and Ben Stokes (65 from 42) played the stroke with any real conviction. For the rest, it was akin to clasping at air during free-fall.
Here, Stokes swept just once and Root not at all. And perhaps the deliveries from Abrar that dismissed them - a googly from outside leg that left Stokes open-faced in appreciation, and a sharp-spinning legbreak that pinned Root on the back foot - could have been swept. But the pair of batters who used the shot the most were also the most successful, England's top-scorers Ben Duckett (63) and Pope (60).
Both are interesting case studies when it comes to the sweep. Duckett has been a proponent of the conventional and reverse since he was old enough to wield a bat, and now has the kind of confidence that means he can strike 29 off 17 with it, as he did today. Pope, on the other hand, has tinkered to such an extent that, while facing Rashid Khan in a T20 Blast match, he happened upon a wrong-footed sweep - with the right-hander's back foot (right) coming forward rather than the front (left). He nailed that once here.
Naturally, in keeping with the theme of the day, both men eventually fell on their brooms to be dismissed, and against the man of the moment, of course. But, as is the way under Stokes and McCullum, there were no regrets.
"For me, generally a sweep is kind of a forward defence, especially when the ball is spinning into me," Duckett said afterwards. "I'm gutted I missed two in the last two games, but I'm going to be playing plenty more out here.
"Two years ago, maybe I'd have played differently to that. But with the backing from the captain and the coach, I'm pretty sure they'd be quite annoyed with me if I got out knocking it to short leg.
"I just tried to sweep every ball [Abrar] bowled, really. Try and stick to my game and not really worry about what he was trying to do."
There were brains behind the belligerence. Duckett said he felt comfortable to go "every ball" because of how Abrar operated: primarily as a legspinner with a fine googly who would rarely pull his length short.
"I actually think the control he had throughout his spell was very good," Duckett said. "Generally, someone like that will give you bad balls. He tended to miss [his length] on the fuller side, which is what you want from someone who spins it both ways. That's kind of why I swept: because it doesn't matter which way it's spinning when you're sweeping."
It was insightful that Duckett likened the "high-risk" nature of sweeping spinners to driving against the new ball. Without the shot, England would have finished well short of the 281 that they eventually made, on a pitch that would have put the frighteners up previous iterations of this team.
"I'd much rather get out playing a sweep shot than playing a forward defence," he added. "It got me runs today and made me score quick. We were really focussed on being positive. If we didn't score at that rate it could have easily been 150, 200 all out."
He's got a point and it's worth remembering Duckett has been burned by such negativity before. In his second Test appearance, back in 2016 on a raging bunsen in Mirpur, he had wristily flayed Bangladesh's spinners to all parts.
By tea on day three, England were 100 for no loss, Duckett 56 - the first of now three scores above fifty - to Alastair Cook's 39, chasing a target of 273. They then lost 10 wickets in the next 22.3 overs after the break with one of the meekest displays against the turning ball. As it happens, only Stokes - 25 from 36 - tried to give anything back.
Having taken two Pakistan wickets by stumps, and still leading by 174, you could just about argue the opening day in Multan was tilted slightly in England's favour. Sure, they could have improved on their score of 281, but probably only through doing what they did with more gusto.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo