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Supporters of the Pakistan men’s cricket team are well accustomed to the experience of their team turning a winning position into a loss. The three-match Test series in Pakistan with England that ended last Tuesday has provided yet another one of those experiences. England’s preparedness to tour was in stark contrast to September 2021, when the English Cricket Board pulled both men’s and women’s team out of short tours, citing security concerns.

These days the ECB has different management, as does the England team, along with a different attitude. Additionally, the COVID-induced bubbles which the teams had to inhibit have gone, although safety issues still necessitate heavy security for the teams in Pakistan. Since England’s new order was installed, performance on the field has improved dramatically. Having won only one Test out of seventeen between mid-February 2021 and end of March 2022, it has now won nine out 10 between early June 2022 and Dec. 20, 2022.

All of this is in addition to winning the T20 World Cup in Australia last month. This turnaround has been achieved with many of the same playing personnel who were involved in the previous slump. Cricket, as with many sports, is a matter of confidence, of management picking and backing those who they believe have the necessary combination of talent and attitude, allowing them to play without fear of failure, taking the game to the opposition.

This approach often makes the difference in tight situations, as exemplified in Pakistan. In the first Test, in Rawalpindi, the wicket was lifeless. It is not the first time that this has been the case. The International Cricket Council’s match referee has ruled that Pakistan will receive two demerit points for the inferior quality of the pitch. Nevertheless, England found a way to capture 20 wickets to win the match. This was made possible by some bold tactics.

In the match, 1,768 runs were scored on a benign pitch, the third highest ever in aggregate, in which four of England’s batters scored centuries, scoring a staggering 174 in the first 27 overs of the match. At tea on the fourth day, England boldly declared its second innings, asking Pakistan to score 343 to win in four sessions. On the fifth and final day, 20 fours later, Pakistan needed another 86 runs and England five wickets to win. The result could have gone either way, but a final effort from England’s bowlers secured victory by 74 runs in fast-fading light.

The second Test at Lahore revealed a Pakistani debutant in Abrar Ahmed, who took 11 wickets with his leg-spin. His batting was almost decisive in Pakistan’s second innings chase of 344 for victory but, in a tense finish, England triumphed by 26 runs. At Karachi, for the third Test, it was England’s turn to reveal a leg-spinning debutant, Rehan Ahmed. He was born in Nottingham, England, of Pakistani parents and is England’s youngest ever debutant aged 18 years and 126 days. Not only that but, in claiming five wickets for 48 runs in Pakistan’s second innings, he became the youngest ever debutant to do so in the history of Test cricket.

This is an extraordinary feat, made even more poignant in that it was achieved in the country of his parents’ birth, under the eyes of his father, who had been a professional cricketer in Pakistan. The context of his performance is also remarkable. He had played only three first class matches in England, all in 2022, after performing well for England’s U19 team in the 2022 World Cup. Pakistan had reached 150 for three wickets after 51 overs in its second innings, a lead of 100, with star batter, Babar Asam looking well set. Ahmed was invited to bowl and immediately claimed Asam’s wicket, going on to be largely responsible for Pakistan’s collapse to 216 all out. This left England needing 170 runs to win that was achieved for the loss of only two wickets.

There has been much commentary about England’s new approach to test cricket and their enthusiastic embrace of a high-risk strategy. Some see this as a necessary antidote to counter the high-speed T20 format which is threatening to become dominant. What the approach does emphasize is that success in cricket, as for many sports, is cyclical. Pakistan missed several key players but were in match winning positions at stages in all three matches against England, only to be suckered into making mistakes by England’s high-pressure attitude and, it has to be said, several fortunate decisions by officials.

Other teams will look at the competitive advantage developed by England and decide how best to counter it. One effect is that Test matches involving England tend not to need all of the allocated five days. However, the recent first Test between Australia and South Africa in Brisbane was over in only two days. Thirty-four wickets fell in the game for an aggregate score of 503 runs. Australia won but the ICC match referee deemed the pitch to be below average, handing Australia one demerit point.

This has insignificant effect on its position at the top of the World Test Championship table for the 2021-2023 cycle. Nine Test match-playing teams are involved, points awarded for wins and positions calculated according to the number of matches played within a maximum and minimum range. The top two teams, currently Australia and India, play-off in a final. England’s recent surge has been insufficient to give itself a chance to make the final, whilst Pakistan’s chances are remote.

Whilst the Pakistan v England series has re-emphasised Test cricket’s magic, it has also highlighted some issues for the future. One is the quality of pitches, which need to ensure an even contest between bat and ball. Second, is the question as to extent to which the mentality and techniques developed in short format cricket amongst players and coaches is going to be used by all Test playing teams to shape the long format’s future.

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