The most important games are now played at 100 mph. Runs and wickets were plentiful on the first morning in Multan as England reached the break at 180-5. Ben Duckett and Ollie Pope each recorded half a century, but the star of the show was Pakistani debutant Abrar Ahmed, who took all five wickets in a thrilling cricketing session.
Any fears of a delayed start due to smog were immediately put to rest as a bright morning with only a touch of mist greeted the players in central Punjab. Ben Stokes won the toss and after joking yesterday that he hoped to lose it, went for an at-bat.
Pakistani Babar Azam made no secret of his disappointment, saying he “certainly” would have struck if given the choice. The first half hour of the day felt a bit like a normal test match. Two Pakistani players bowling with a hint of available movement and England, at least by their own standards, vigilant.
But that would change with the introduction of 24-year-old Pakistani spin and debutant Ahmed. A leg-turner with a touch of mystery about him, Ahmed has been one of Pakistani national cricket’s leading bowlers this season and his omission from the first Test has been a major talking point in local circles. And it took just five balls for him to prove why, as he delivered a pearl of a googly to Zak Crawley who was played for 19.
In the past, away tours of England and the mysterious rotation have been a fatal combination for the visiting team, but any suggestion that England would back down against their new opponent disappeared as Ollie Pope toppled his first ball against Ahmed for four. A blow that would then dominate the next hour of debate.
England’s strategy would not be without risk, and Ben Duckett and Pope would survive overhaul, but the shot would guide both batters to half-centuries of 40 and 52 balls respectively. But just when England seemed to be running away, the session would become Ahmed’s.
First he would claim the wicket of Duckett who eventually fell under his confident sweep, trapped LBW, before getting the vital dismissal from Joe Root with a classic legbreak that tipped over the leg and beat the outside edge Root’s bat and hit him on the back pad. Pakistan, and the Abrar celebrations in particular, were wild. England went away 145-3.
At that point, the session seemed to end in a draw, but Ahmed was far from over. Just as Duckett did before him, Pope would live and die by the sweep. His backhand finding the backstitch hands.
And Pakistan’s advantage would be confirmed as Ahmed claimed his fifth place finish in a dream opener. Harry Brook jumped halfway where he was caught by Mohammad Nawaz. Ahmed had 13 overs in his first Test cricket session, conceded 70 runs and taken five wickets.
On a wicket that already looks a lot better than the one played last week, it seems to be a thrilling contest between the two teams.