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Match Analysis

Saud Shakeel provides another flicker to Pakistan's ever-guttering flame

History says England have the series in the bag, but Pakistan's exceptions remain their rule

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
11-Dec-2022
Saud Shakeel compiled a third consecutive half-century, and is still on hand to guide his team's fortunes  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Saud Shakeel compiled a third consecutive half-century, and is still on hand to guide his team's fortunes  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

The morning session oscillated delicately between overwhelming English control and the gentlest whiff of a Pakistani opportunity; the dance redolent of a first date where one side is keen to pull away out of sight, even as the other desperately clings on. England were so sure they were steering clear, though, they didn't quite clock Pakistan's power to hang on and drag the dalliance out by at least one more day.
Pakistan's first-innings implosion on Saturday might have seemed tactically baffling. But the pay-off came today as England, lulled into what might still turn out to be a true sense of security, gave away their last five wickets with the profligacy of a billionaire frittering away their fortune on a social media company. It still left Pakistan needing their second-highest fourth-innings chase to level the series, a feat that, even for a city as steeped in the folklore of yesteryear as Multan, would be historic.
But Pakistan draw their belief not from the blind faith they place in their collective process, à la England, but from the occasional jarring exceptions to the general trend of their Test batting decline. There might be collapses aplenty straddling more than just this generation of Pakistan's Test cricket, but like the occasional brilliant flashes of light from a flame that's invariably going out, Pakistan's batting can occasionally sparkle with a luminescence that is no longer characteristic of it.
Since the start of 2014, no other side in the world has chased down totals in excess of 300 as frequently as Pakistan. Just this year, one vintage one for spectacular batting implosions, Pakistan ran down 342 in Galle, and amassed 443 for 7 in Karachi against an Australian attack that had rolled them for 148 48 hours earlier.
Mohammad Rizwan opened the batting alongside Abdullah Shafique after Imam-ul-Haq had been sent for an MRI scan on a dodgy hamstring, and injected the sort of gentle intent that has seen him earn both praise and criticism in the shortest format. Joe Root was dispatched for ten in his first over, Shafique looked particularly comfortable, and as lunch arrived, Pakistan were well placed having scored 64 undefeated runs.
Lunch at the Multan Cricket Stadium strikes a steady balance between bland mediocrity and mediocre blandness, but even a Michelin Star chef would have struggled to leave English fans salivating quite as much as the visitors' newish-ball spell after the interval. With James Anderson, Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood each producing their best deliveries of the series, Saud Shakeel and Imam found themselves in a scrap to take the game beyond the weekend.
Both men have plenty to prove in this format, but Shakeel appreciates that point more than Imam. He had travelled with this Test side from time to time before making his debut in Pindi, but Zahid Mahmood's experience would tell him that earning a reward for patience is no guarantee of success.
He saw off a barrage from England's fire-breathing quicks post-lunch, never once worrying about a strike-rate that was likelier to dip into single figures than rise into three. That temperament demonstrated why Shakeel has the highest control percentage against seam bowling among all Pakistan batters; of the 222 seam deliveries he has faced, he has been in control of 93.24%, edging out his captain Babar Azam at 93.04%.
In the era of Brendon McCullum's England, who sometimes feel as if they've reinvented Test cricket since the summer, it's easy to get carried away, and believe you can fly even if you do not have a magic carpet. The mood even caught PCB chairman Ramiz Raja on Saturday, as he told Sky Sports' Michael Atherton he wanted Pakistan to select T20 players in the Test side to replicate what England were doing.
Saud is not a T20 player. He certainly does not have a magic carpet. But he possesses the maturity to recognise the futility of chasing after toys he cannot afford, and has learned not to lust after them either. In his first 33 balls, he had scored five runs. In his four innings for Pakistan so far, he hasn't once managed a strike-rate in excess of 60. Juxtaposed against England's modern, flashy shotmaking, he feels like a typewriter in the age of the smartphone, and just as exciting.
But he averages in excess of 66 in the fourth innings across his first-class career, and with two days left in this match, it matters little how quickly those runs come. Across this series, no Pakistan player has negotiated pace better. He's unbeaten on 54 off 123 overnight, but that's exactly what he is: unbeaten. Imam might have contributed more runs, and scored them at a greater clip, but a flash at dusk outside off means he won't be worrying England anymore.
Shakeel was called up to make his ODI debut against South Africa in 2021, shortly before being ruled out of the tour with a quad injury, so he'll be well aware of the limited value of a good day in an otherwise rough week. And even when the Sunday Multan crowd - the biggest of the Test by far - witnessed Pakistan enjoy their best day of the series, they would walk away fully aware the bulk of Pakistan's work still lay ahead of them.
Even so, England have been dragged back for another date, the prospect of nothing to separate the two sides as they fly together onto Karachi very much real. The visitors may yet feel they're well placed to escape Pakistan's clutches, but Shakeel's grit, and the contradictory weirdness innate in Pakistan's batting record this year, ensures there'll be plenty of butterflies in English stomachs overnight.

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