England’s tour of Pakistan has witnessed T20I cricket at its very, very best, writes Ben Gardner.
It started slowly – the best series often do. Race in too quickly and there’s nowhere higher to go. Build into it, let the narratives develop and the storylines stew. And then ratchet up to the highest gear.
That’s not to say the first T20I was a bad one. There was a big Babar-Rizwan stand – there is always a big Babar-Rizwan stand – leading to the criticism and then the glorious riposte. There was Luke Wood’s debut, the goatee GOAT tearing in for a Player of the Match spell. There was an Alex Hales fifty, a scratchy thing, but still sweet to savour for him after three and a half long years. There were some appetisers from Ben Duckett and Harry Brook, whetting the palate for what was to follow.
The second was something else altogether. England surged to 199 in the traditional manner – no one faced 30 balls, but nearly everyone contributed. Duckett swept and swept. Moeen Ali glided to a rapid half-century. Babar and Rizwan, who sit on top of basically every T20I partnership record list apart from those for fast scoring, had been questioned for attempting to do it all themselves rather than venture a bit more and in doing so risk a bit less. And so they did it all themselves, an unbeaten 203-run stand with a century for the Prince and not far off it for his deputy. This was daring batting, made to look unimpeachable. Had they been dismissed with eight overs to go and the asking rate in the 12s, Pakistan would surely have lost. The beauty is that they weren’t. Their teammates made sure to silence the critics on social media afterwards, but Babar and Rizwan had already done all the talking.
Onto the third, with England again batting first, this time not by choice. What to do in response to that chanceless epic? The answer, as it always is for England, was to go even harder. Brook was the star, and Duckett the fine supporting act. The former, says Nasser, has to be nailed on for the No.5 slot in England’s T20 World Cup opener, but still isn’t quite. The latter isn’t even in the squad, and had had to make do with four white-ball games across six years prior to this tour. The batting stocks are plentiful.
As, once again, is the pace-bowling department. England were cautious when discussing Mark Wood’s potential involvement in the build-up to the series. Maybe he’ll get a go in the second leg, was the vibe. We’ll see how he’s tracking. But we absolutely must not risk him. Then he rocked up to Karachi, a city where the streets sing of fast-bowling heroics, and bowled rockets in the practice sessions, begging to be unshackled. Lift-off was achieved. Pace is pace, yaar, and Wood might just be the paciest of them all right now. His first over was quick, Wood reaching 95.6mph with his third ball in six months. The second was absolutely terrifying, and, if the speed gun is to be believed, surely the fastest an England bowler has ever produced. His fastest ball crossed 97mph. His slowest was still at 94. He averaged more than 150kph across his four overs. Pakistan didn’t have a hope, and it was 2-1 heading into the fourth.
At the halfway stage of the series, England looked to be running away with it. There was a big Babar-Rizwan stand – there is always a big Babar-Rizwan stand – but Pakistan could only manage 166, even with Asif Ali, their nine-ball-a-game specialist, smashing two of his three balls faced for six. It would prove a crucial intervention.
If the chase in the second T20I was high-wire, the one in the fourth was haywire. England were three down within two overs and out of it. Then the middle order clawed them back into it. Duckett and Brook, England’s two batting stars of the series thus far, put on 43. Advantage England. Mohammad Nawaz somehow got Duckett to miss a sweep, and England scrambled just eight runs across two overs. Advantage Pakistan. Then Brook and Moeen plundered Nawaz, hitherto unhittable, for two sixes and a four in four balls to nudge ahead of the rate again. Advantage England. Both then fell within seven balls of each other. Advantage Pakistan. David Willey ramped Haris Rauf twice in two balls, before being castled by a yorker “straight out of the Wasim and Waqar playbook”, as Mark Butcher put it. Advantage, and surely the decisive one, to Pakistan.
In the middle were Adil Rashid and Liam Dawson, with the first-class hundreds tallies to make England fans dream, and the recent international records to provide a dose of reality. The last time either passed 40 for England was in December 2016, on Dawson’s Test debut. That, technically, is still true. But Dawson’s 17-ball 34 was an innings to savour.
Dawson is a curious cricketer, England’s designated Safe Pair Of Hands, either in the squad or a reserve for every World Cup in the last five years without ever having played a World Cup game. His darts had proved useful but unspectacular in the series so far. He is the quiet contributor, but never the main man. This time, he so nearly was. Mohammad Hasnain was taken for five boundaries in four legal deliveries. Dawson nudged a single to take the target into single figures and keep himself on strike, before pulling Rauf for four to take the runs required to five. England had three wickets and 10 balls in hand. The game was up.
It wasn’t, of course. Dawson finally mistimed one, pulling Rauf to midwicket. Olly Stone was bowled first ball. Reece Topley had his toe crushed by a 96mph thunderbolt, but a review showed it was pitching outside. Rashid couldn’t keep the strike. England had a warning at the non-striker’s end, Rashid miles out of his ground as mid-on missed the throw. The second time there was no mistake, Shan Masood dead-eyed, Topley caught short attempting to steal one. Cue pandemonium.
England and Pakistan have packed 17 years of drama and thrust into four T20Is. The scoreline reads 2-2. And the best thing is, there are still three more to come. Lahore has plenty to live up to.