By reputation, Pakistan are a chaotic and unpredictable team. The journalist Osman Samiuddin, who has spent years trying to make sense of them, once wrote a brilliant essay about those glorious moments when the players would sense something coming, would slip all of sudden into a higher gear, and inexorably wrest control of a game away from the opposition with a rush of quick wickets. “Waqar Younis calls these moments a tamasha, a spectacle, but also a cross between a rolling circus and a fair,” Samiuddin wrote. “It is a tamasha,” Waqar told him: “‘I swear to God, we used to say it, we used to talk about it like this. Chal para kaam, chaloji, pakro [‘It’s begun, come, grab on to it’]’.”
Now they are up against an England team who have some wild and unpredictable magic of their own. It is less familiar than Pakistan’s, because it still feels so novel, so very un-English, but it’s there all the same, especially when they are batting. They have the feeling that, as Joe Root put it on Saturday night: “We know anything is possible.” It has grown out of the way they have played in one-day cricket in the last four years, when they have proven to themselves, over and again, that there’s no target so large that it can’t be chased. And because their best batsmen play in both formats, they have carried some of that energy into their Test cricket.
So Pakistan find themselves in the unfamiliar position of trying to pull themselves together again after being blown apart in a whirlwind hour at the very end of a match they had dominated for four days. Their captain, Azhar Ali, is coming in for particular stick because of the way his team let the match slip. It doesn’t help his case that his own form has fallen away since he took the job last November. He has made one fifty in 10 innings since, 118 against Sri Lanka in Karachi, in an innings when every one of Pakistan’s top four batsmen made a century. And maybe Azhar does lack that instinctive sense of the moment, that native grasp of what bowling and fielding changes to make when, that the most inspired Test captains have.
But still, Pakistan lost the Test only when it felt, to them, and everyone, except England’s batsmen, as though they had already won it. England’s vaunted middle-order were all out, they were five down, and still 160 runs away. Azhar and his team took their foot off their opponent’s throat just a moment too soon, but that doesn’t change the fact that they had wrestled them down to the ground over the previous four days. And if Azhar made mistakes in those final moments, if he waited too long to bring Yasir Shah back into the attack, well, he hasn’t been in this position too often himself since he has led in only seven Tests. And he was leading a pretty raw and inexperienced bowling attack.
The better test of his captaincy will be how he rallies the team in the next few days. The frantic schedule being used in these unusual series has some benefits for the touring teams, they have been stuck in training camps for weeks beforehand so have had much more time than they usually do to prepare for the Tests. But the flip side is that when the games start, they come fast. West Indies struggled to adjust to the pace of them after winning the first Test in Southampton. Three days later, the very same bowlers were back out in the field again, flogging themselves through more overs. By the time they made it to the third Test, they were spent.
So, well as the trio of Naseem Shah, Shaheen Afridi, and Mohammad Abbas, bowled in the last match, Pakistan’s leadership team will have to weigh whether they should make changes simply to keep everyone fresh. And they will ask, too, if they will still need two leg-spinners now the series is moving to the Ageas Bowl. They have certainly got options; they brought 10 fast bowlers over in their squad. Sohail Khan may be the most likely of them to come in. He is 36, and has an underwhelming Test record of 27 wickets at 41.66. But he took 11 wickets during the squad’s two warm-up games, and did well during their last tour of England in 2016, when he took one five-fer at Edgbaston and another at the Oval.
More than that, Azhar will have to focus his players on the fact that they outplayed England for most of the match. That strange magic of theirs won’t save them every time. Pakistan should know that just as well as anyone.