2nd Test, Day 4: England record narrow victory to take unassailable 2-0 series lead

Pakistan appeared to be on track at 290/5 in chase of 355 but failed to close out the game.

After an arduous 8 days of cricket, playing an English team that was making shockwaves across the circuit, Day 4 of the Multan Test presented Pakistan with an opportunity to fight back and, as a direct consequence, stay alive in this historic Test series at home versus England – their first in the country in 17 years.

The hosts required 157 runs at the start of play, a substantial amount, with 6 wickets remaining in the bag; an onerous task. What would have encouraged Pakistan, however, was the apparent reality of the pitch flattening out with the progression of the game, making it easier to bat on, as conveyed by England’s batting consultant Marcus Trescothick in his press conference on Day 3.

I had a conversation with Michael Atherton in the press box before the start of play, asking him what Pakistan’s chances were to level the series. The former English captain and venerated commentator went on to give England a 65% chance at winning, with Pakistan very much in with a shot. Music to my ears, obviously.

Saud Shakeel and Faheem Ashraf took the field on what was another sunlit morning in Multan, unbeaten on 54 and 3, respectively. James Anderson was to kick off proceedings for England, hoping to snare one through Saud’s defenses early on, like he did yesterday with Mohammad Rizwan, with what was perhaps the ball of the series thus far; nearly impossibly to top, if you ask me.

The left-handed batter was up to the task, adding a single to his overnight score on the second delivery of the day, sneaking in a quick single on the off side. Pakistan were off the mark, hoping to chart down the 350-plus run target in what would potentially go down as one of the great Test match triumphs in their decorated history.

Faheem Ashraf blunted James Anderson for a boundary through mid-on, the first of the day, in the third over of the veteran seamer’s spell. Less than 150 runs were now required for Pakistan to create headlines, and with every run scored, a little bit of the pressure was abated.

Of course, it takes just one wicket to transfer all that pressure back to the chasing side, which Joe Root successfully delivered, drawing a thick outside edge off the bat of Faheem Ashraf, safely pouched by the slip fielder, sending the left-handed all-rounder back to the pavilion, for a score of 10. Effectively, Pakistan had lost half of their side, with 145 runs still remaining between them and an epoch-making Test victory.

One really worrying sign for Pakistan was that the ball was tending to stay a bit low, which is generally a challenge and a half to deal with. Saud Shakeel held the key for the home team, who, in search of his maiden Test ton in just his fourth innings in the format, was entrusted with the responsibility to steer his team home.

Pakistan desperately needed someone to put their hand up and support Saud Shakeel on the crease, stringing up a much-needed partnership. That someone happened to be Mohammad Nawaz, who had been promoted up the order, ahead of Salman Ali Agha, perhaps to counter the left arm off spin of Jack Leach.

Nawaz, after a bit of a tentative start, began to play his strokes and to good measure. His footwork against the spinners was impeccable, creating enough room for himself to hack the ball away for four on multiple occasions. He took the pressure off Saud, who was soaking up the gravity of the occasion, knowing very well that his stay at the crease was imperative for Pakistan’s cause.

Apart from the boundaries, Pakistan were aided by some brilliant running between the wickets by this batting pair, which briskly took the home team closer and closer to the colossal target at hand. To top things off, the old ball wasn’t offering England any reverse swing, which prompted Ben Stokes to take the new ball as soon as it was offered at the 80-over mark.

Pakistan welcomed the brand new cherry, as it opened up an opportunity to score runs, given that the surface was not offering much to the bowlers, and the hardness of the ball could be capitalized on. And capitalize they did, with the Saud-Nawaz partnership swelling past 50, reducing the runs required for victory to double digits.

Both batters grew in confidence as the morning session progressed, so much so that Mohammad Nawaz had the audacity to come down the track to Ollie Robinson, carving him for a gorgeous four through the covers. Saud Shakeel, after a nervy start to his day, had also started coming into his own, standing firm between England and a third Test series victory on Pakistani soil.

The partnership was now worth 80 runs and had shifted the momentum towards Pakistan considerably, only for Mark Wood to change all of that, as he bowled a vicious short delivery to strangle Nawaz down the legside; a catch snaffled comfortably by make-shift wicketkeeper Ollie Pope. A tactic that had been regularly used to dismiss Pakistani batters throughout the series had worked yet again for England.

With the spin bowling all-rounder dismissed for 45, Pakistan found themselves 6 down for 290 runs, 65 away from a victory that became less probable with every falling wicket. Things took a turn for the worse for the hosts, as Saud Shakeel was dismissed down the leg side as well, once again by Mark Wood, with Ollie Pope claiming a catch deemed clean by the third umpire; a moment that would surely go down as a controversial talking point in the aftermath of this Test.

A blistering spell by Mark Wood, who had now claimed three wickets in the second innings, had changed the complexion of the game, swinging the pendulum drastically towards an English victory and consequent series win away from home.

With Saud dismissed for 94, that too right at the stroke of Lunch, it was Salman Ali Agha or bust now for the home team, as Pakistan’s last recognized batter was tasked with the near-impossible mission of somehow piecing together 64 runs with the tail, to defy all odds and record victory; odds which were now heavily stacked in England’s favor, as the visitors required just three more wickets to ensure that Ben Stokes was successful in his first overseas assignment as Test captain.

The afternoon session kicked off in an animated fashion, with Abrar Ahmed bringing out some ambitious strokes to the benefit of his team. The 24-year-old leg spinner had already made an immense impression on debut and continued to do so in a bid to make this Multan Test one that would be remembered by his name.

After a hoick through midwicket for four versus James Anderson, Abrar went on to open his shoulders against the express pace of Mark Wood, dispatching the tearaway quick down the ground, through backward point, and then up and over the slips for three fours in an over. 45 runs remained to be chased down when Jimmy brought an end to Abrar’s audacious little cameo. Pakistan were 8 down, with all hopes relying solely on the shoulders of Salman Ali Agha. On the other hand, England were within touching distance of a celebrated series victory.

The Multan crowd was on the edge of their seats, praying for a miracle, akin to Karachi 1994 when Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mushtaq Ahmed combined for a last-wicket partnership of 57 runs to hand Pakistan a Test victory over Australia that would go on to be remembered and rejoiced for years to come – to this day really.

For a moment, it seemed like those prayers had been answered as Salman Ali Agha swiped James Anderson for a lofty four over mid-off and then went on to guide him through backward point on the very next delivery for another scintillating boundary. Pakistan were 36 runs away and had started to believe again – belief that was pulverized to shreds as Mark Wood steamed in to obliterate Zahid Mahmood’s off stump on the first delivery of the next over.

It was an eventful three-delivery period of Test cricket, as good as it gets, really, as Mark Wood had snapped up his fourth wicket of the innings, with England one wicket away from absolute ecstasy.

To everyone’s surprise, this Test match had yet another twist in the offing, with Salman getting back-to-back boundaries once again, this time against the searing pace of Mark Wood. 27 runs remained, with Muhammad Ali set to face a red-hot Ollie Robinson, who smashed Pakistani hearts into tiny pieces, drawing the tailender’s edge on the very first delivery.

Ali reviewed the decision, only for DRS to confirm that England had indeed recorded their third-ever Test series victory in Pakistan, their first in 22 years. The visitors had claimed a famous 26-run win, laying the ghosts of 2005 to rest. Meanwhile, Pakistan had lost their third Test in a row on home soil, for the first time since 1959 and the second time in their history.

Babar Azam’s leadership is set to come under the scanner, as the men in green now have absolutely no chance of making it to the World Test Championship final and are under threat of losing four Tests in a row at home – an embarrassment that the proud cricketing nation has never ever suffered.

Euphoria ensued in the English camp as Ben Stokes’ boys were over the moon and had good reason to be, becoming the first English Test side to win two games in a single series in Pakistan. The Barmy Army cheered on their heroes from the stands, with their high-spirited chants and vibrant trumpet tunes, willing their team on to record a clean sweep in Karachi in a game that was now a dead rubber, to the extreme displeasure of Pakistan supporters.

The home side was yet to get their house in order in the longest format ever since lifting the Test mace under the competent and composed leadership of Misbah-ul-Haq, back in late 2016. This was a defeat that was sure to sting, and that too for a while. For months on, Pakistan’s bumper home season, which supporters had anticipated to be a successful one, was shaping up to be the stuff of nightmares.

One thing is for certain: Pakistan find themselves with more questions than answers after what has been an underwhelming performance at home, to put things kindly.