IF EVER there was a case in point about the fickle nature of Test cricket then England’s victory over Pakistan at Old Trafford in the first Test of the three-match series was just that.
England looked dead and buried after some quality swing and pace bowling and the leg spin of Yasir Shah reduced the home side to 5-117, still needing a further 160 runs on a pitch which had produced turn and uneven bounce.
But the much-maligned Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes combined for a partnership of 139 to help Joe Root’s men to a third successive Test win of the English summer following on from the success against the West Indies.
England showed great grit and determination to get across the line in Manchester after many, including myself, had written them off after an under-par first innings total and some big errors in the field and some strange tactics in Pakistan’s first innings allowed the tourists to take a stranglehold of the series opener.
Buttler has been the subject of criticism, much of it deserved, about his performances in the English Test team of late.
In Pakistan’s first innings, he put down a catch and missed a stumping which allowed opener Shan Masood to go on to make 156 as the tourists took control.
Buttler, who has been under pressure to keep his place from the likes of Jonny Bairstow and Ben Foakes, admitted he had to do better with the gloves if he is to continue to keep his spot.
“If I take those chances, we’re not chasing 277,” Buttler told the BBC’s Test Match Special. “I know it’s not good enough.
“I know if I’m going to continue to be a wicketkeeper in this team, I have to be better.
“As a wicketkeeper there is nowhere to hide. It is tough for anyone who drops a catch. It’s one of the worst feelings in cricket.”
Buttler has also been struggling with the bat in the past few Tests but showed with a 67 in the final match against the Windies and 38 in England’s first innings in this match, that he was close to the form he shows in one-day cricket, where he is regarded as one of England’s best.
Just as he did with Ben Stokes in last year’s World Cup final, Buttler held his nerve as the opposition looked to take control.
When he was joined by Woakes on day four at Old Trafford, England were staring down the barrel of their seventh defeat in the first Test of a series on an increasingly difficult pitch.
Woakes and Buttler struck up a partnership of 139 to guide England to victory
He and Woakes, who has also struggled to hold his place in the England team of late, decided attack was the best form of defence and took the game to the visitors.
Buttler was out LBW reverse-sweeping Shah with 21 still needed for victory, but Woakes stood firm and steered England home with 84 not out.
Woakes was handed the man of the match award for what was undoubtedly his finest hour in an England shirt.
He was always touted as an all-rounder when he first arrived on the international scene, but until this innings he had only shown glimpses of his talent.
This innings is potentially career-defining and will no doubt allow Root to keep using Stokes as more of a specialised batsman with Woakes set to become a genuine all-rounder.
“We felt that attacking was the way to go on that surface,” Woakes told the BBC.
“The match situation made our minds for us. It was good idea to take them on and put them under pressure.
“I was playing second fiddle at one point. I was devastated Jos got out, but it was a great partnership.
“He is one of the best white-ball players in the world – one of the best run-chasers – and he showed why today. He put them under pressure. I couldn’t have picked a better partner at the other end.”
Before this series Root said his and coach Chris Silverwood’s goal was to become the number one Test team in the world.
They were anything but that on the first two days of this Test and will need to up their game against a Pakistan team which is a definite step up from the West Indies outfit that England beat.
Babar Azam is a class act and is up there as one of the top five batsmen in the world.
Shan Masood has shown he can play the anchor role at the top of the order and captain Azhar Ali is also a top-class performer.
Pakistan’s bowling attack is also menacing, particularly in English conditions.
Tearaway teenager Naseem Shah looks set to terrorise batsmen around the world as he gets older, stronger, and more experienced.
Mohammad Abbas showed at Old Trafford he is more than capable of exploiting conditions which suit him.
Previous Pakistan teams have shown the propensity to let their heads go down after a knockback of the likes they experienced at Old Trafford.
Make no mistake about it Pakistan should have won the first Test in Manchester and the defeat would have been hard to swallow, especially after they had put themselves in such a strong position.
But under Ali, I think this Pakistan side has a bit more to give and they will not want to let another position of authority slip away if they get it in the next two Tests at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton.