England in Pakistan: Andy Zaltzman on an astonishing and record-breaking first Test

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Ben Stokes has now led England to seven wins in eight Tests since taking over from Joe Root in April

The Rawalpindi Test defied precedent, expectation, and the accepted bounds of cricketing science.

On a featureless travesty of a cricket pitch that categorically refused to deteriorate – and was estimated by experts to have a half-life not far short of weapons-grade plutonium – in a match shorn of around 10 overs per day by the sun sticking to its scheduled setting time, England concocted one of the most astonishing Test match victories.

Even allowing for the weakness of Pakistan’s bowling attack – they had not fielded an XI with fewer collective career Test wickets since the mid-1950s, when they were a new addition to international cricket – this match should have been a draw.

Almost the only feasible path to victory on such a surface, in what was essentially a four-and-a-half day game, was to score something in the region of 921 runs in 136.5 overs, to allow sufficient time to take 20 wickets. England stuck to that blueprint with impressive precision, right from the start.

In the Test Match Special commentary box, my stats machine was overheating from the first over to the last. The gripping, fluctuating and unprecedented story of the game Vesuviused out a pyroclastic flow of extraordinary numbers, from the moment Zak Crawley equalled Chris Gayle’s record 14 runs in the first over of a Test match.

Ben Duckett and Crawley reached 100 without loss in 13.4 overs, the second-fastest hundred first-wicket stand in Tests, and the fastest in the opening innings of a Test, and the third time England have broken their national record for fastest 100 opening partnership in the last five games. The 14.5 overs it took England to reach 100 in the second innings was also in the Top 10 Fastest 0-to-100s in Test history.

England reached 200 in 30.1 and 30.3 overs in their two innings, the third and fourth fastest a team has posted 200 in Tests (and breaking the record for the opening innings of a Test by 26 balls). They passed 300 in 49.2 overs, the second fewest overs required to reach that total – beaten only by South Africa against a very weak Zimbabwe in March 2005, and the fewest in the opening innings of a Test.

They set new records for fewest overs required to reach 400 (in 64.0 overs, by a margin of 4.1 overs), 500 (in 74.4, breaking that record by 15.3 overs), and 600, in 90.2 overs, sledgehammering a barely comprehensible 33.2 overs, or 200 balls, or well over two hours of cricket, off the previous record of 123.4 overs.

The pitiless pudding of a pitch may have been the ideal surface on which to bat like the England of the Ben Stokes-Brendon McCullum era – minimal lateral movement, predictable bounce and an unresponsive ball. Nonetheless, the assault was unprecedented.

They scored at 6.73 runs per over in their two innings combined, smithereening their own record for fastest run rate by a team batting in both innings of a Test – 5.40, set at Trent Bridge last summer, which itself broke a record which had stood since October 1902, when a legendary Australian team, on the way home from a victorious Ashes tour, hammered South Africa around Johannesburg.

In England’s consolation win in the final Test of that 1902 Ashes, Gloucestershire’s Gilbert Jessop scored a 76-ball century – still England’s fastest, but clinging on precariously under repeated assaults from Stokes’ team and their approach to cricket. Rawalpindi saw four new entries to the list of the 20 fastest England Test hundreds, and three to the top 10, but Jessop survived two near-misses by Harry Brook, to add to Jonny Bairstow’s 77-baller in the summer.

The rapid-scoring stats tumbled faster than the wickets in England’s Ashes collapses in Melbourne and Hobart less than a year ago. Crawley became the seventh player, and first for England, to reach fifty in fewer than 50 balls in both innings of a Test.

Ollie Pope made the fastest hundred by an England wicket-keeper, and the fastest by an England number three, yet it was only the third fastest of the innings.

Brook, who first equalled, then broke, Ian Botham’s 1986 England record of 24 runs clouted in a Test over, scored 240 runs off 181 balls in the match, achieving the highest match strike-rate by anyone who has scored more than 200 runs in a Test.

The supposedly inescapable path to an inevitable draw continued when Pakistan batted. It became the first Test in which all four openers made first-innings hundreds, and the first in which both first-innings opening stands reached 200 – both of which stats had only occurred four times in the more-than-60,000-match history of first-class cricket.

According to CricViz data, the first four days saw a lower proportion of false shots from defensive strokes (i.e. edged and missed deliveries) than in the equivalent period of any Test in the last seven years.

And yet, on the final day, England’s seamers, despite their lack of extreme pace, somehow finessed a victory, in a phenomenal display of craft, persistence and ingenuity.

England bowler James Anderson celebrates taking a wicket against Pakistan
In a high-scoring match, James Anderson conceded only 88 runs off his 46 overs, taking five wickets

James Anderson – player of the match when England last played in Rawalpindi, in a one-day international in December 2005 – was characteristically, Andersonically magnificent, nagging away like a hot-shot lawyer until the defendant breaks down and admits to a string of crimes they weren’t even charged with. He has now taken 79 Test wickets in Asia – of pace bowlers for non-Asian teams, only South African great Dale Steyn has more.

England’s seamers took only two wickets in the first innings, then nine in the second. Had Pope or Joe Root moved for a simple catch off Naseem Shah’s edge from Stokes’ bowling, they would have become the first seam attack since 1993 – and the second non-Asian team ever, after West Indies in 1983 – to take all 10 wickets in the fourth innings of a Test in Asia.

Naseem’s edged boundary took the match tally to 1,768 runs – the third most runs ever scored in a Test, beaten only by two timeless pre-War matches, both of which ended in draws when England had to begin a long journey home. Pakistan’s first innings 579 is the third highest total by a losing side in a Test.

England thus won a Test in which they faced 54% of the number of overs that their opponents received, and lost their wickets far more frequently – one every eight overs, compared to Pakistan’s one per 12.4 overs, an almost unprecedented deficit between a winning team and their opponents in a Test.

This England team are challenging their opponents in unfamiliar ways, whether in their unrepentant attack from the first over with the bat, by setting almost surrealist fields, or by an all-out bouncer attack with the new ball – the opening 10 overs in Pakistan’s second innings was the shortest-pitched start to a Test innings in the period covered by ball-tracking data.

With seven wins in eight Tests, following a sequence of one win in 17, the new England regime are writing a captivating chapter in cricketing history, and I hope the statistics help illustrate quite how extraordinary their cricket has been.

A match that had begun with a 14-run over and the fastest double-century opening partnership in Test history, ended with 11 runs scored in the final 20 overs, five wickets falling, and a nailed-on draw being gloriously un-nailed.

Of all the sumptuous narratives generated by the unique possibilities of a Test match, this was one of the most exceptional.

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