Abrar Ahmed takes seven in debut innings as Pakistan cramp England’s new style
The spinner was on course for a record debut haul, but Zahid Mahmood got in on the act to finish off the inning
Pakistan 107 for 2 (Babar 61*, Shakeel 32*) trail England 281 (Duckett 63, Pope 60, Abrar 7-114) by 174 runs
Abrar Ahmed – or Abrar-cadabra, as Ben Stokes might agree he should be called – provided the mystery and the mastery that Pakistan’s attack had so lacked in Rawalpindi last week, to rush to stunning debut figures of 7 for 114 in 22 overs in a sensational fast-forwarded performance in Multan.
After just 45 overs of England’s innings, Abrar had become the third Pakistan cricketer to take seven wickets on debut, and he was on course to claim all ten until fellow legspinner Zahid Mahmood got in on the act with the final three wickets of the innings, including two in two to pick off wickets eight and nine. Nevertheless, with Bob Massie and Narendra Hirwani‘s historic debuts still out there as inspiration – and with Babar Azam and Saud Shakeel putting Pakistan on course for a useful total as their third-wicket stand of 56 reduced the overnight arrears to 174 – the prospect of further records in the second innings for Abrar seems very much on the cards.
England’s Bazballing batters certainly won’t be clamming up against his threat in a hurry. Despite a significantly more adverse scenario than they had faced on the flattest of decks in the first Test, Stokes’ men still hurtled along with their new fearless approach, racking up their runs at a rate of 5.43 across 51.4 overs. En route, they even set another new Test record in an extended two-and-a-half-hour morning session, reaching lunch on 180 for 5 from 32 overs – the most runs ever made in the first session of a match, and eclipsing the 174 for 0 they’d managed at the same stage in Rawalpindi.
It all made for a fascinating battle of punch and counter-punch, in conditions that could not have been further removed from the bat-dominant first Test – and when Mark Wood’s long handle picked off eight fours in an unbeaten 36 from 27 balls in a priceless last-wicket stand with James Anderson, England might even have considered they were above-par for the conditions.
With the new ball in hand, Anderson’s early extraction of Imam-ul-Haq briefly reinforced that notion, as he feathered a lifter outside off and trooped off bemused for a duck. But Babar, pushed up to No. 3 following the axing of Azhar Ali, assumed familiar command of the reply. By the time the sun had set, he had eased along to 61 not out in an 14.3-over partnership with Shakeel, and if the ovation that greeted his half-century rivalled even that for Abrar’s feat, it came too with the sense that he is the man to ensure that such a bowling display does not go to waste.
Despite some intermittently sharp turn for England’s own spinners – including Jack Leach, who found Abdullah Shafique’s edge for 14 but lacked a touch of control – and a rowdy four-over burst from Wood in which he touched 97mph/156kph, the early signs were that Abrar offers Pakistan a weapon that England will struggle to match, let alone master when their turn comes again. Notably Ollie Robinson, Player of the Match last week, didn’t bowl a single over, and though hindsight is a tedious thing, England were maybe wishing they’d trusted their own mystery-man, Rehan Ahmed, for a debut in these conditions.
Either way, England are no longer a team prepared to wait for the ball with their name on it when the ball is ragging sharply, and not even the loss of Zak Crawley to a sublime googly in Abrar’s first over could persuade them to temper their aggression for long.
Having stood tall to the seamers to punch three trademark fours through the covers, Crawley was bowled clean through the gate for 19 from 37 balls as Abrar, with little discernible change of action, flicked out a fifth-ball wrong’un to take out the top of off stump.
Previous England teams would doubtless have been spooked by such unassuming brilliance. Instead, Ollie Pope – fresh from his century at Rawalpindi – announced his own arrival by reverse-sweeping Abrar first-ball for four, and as he and Ben Duckett took the fight back to the bowling, England began to tick along at more than a run a ball for the third innings in succession in this series.
The fact that these conditions were significantly more bowler-friendly than at Rawalpindi, however, was telegraphed by Zahid, Pakistan’s other legspinner, whose own debut in the first Test could hardly have been more contrasting – on that occasion, his four first-innings wickets had come at a eye-watering cost of 235 runs. Twice in his first over here, however, his high-kicking legbreaks beat Pope’s outside edge, and when the batter responded by reversing his hands on a sweep next ball, he was initially given out lbw for 11 – but was saved on review after replays showed the impact had been glove, not pad.
Duckett, by this stage, was once again showing he is a magnificent manipulator of angles in spinning conditions, as he rushed along to a 40-ball half-century with a showcase of sweeps, reverse-sweeps and wristy late cuts. On 61, however, he too survived a curious case of glove before wicket, as he stooped for another reverse off Abrar and was given out on-field – but his reprieve mattered little. Before the over was done, Abrar had his man, as Duckett this time missed a conventional sweep and Babar successfully reviewed the on-field not-out.
At 117 for 2 after 19 overs, there was no thought of a consolidation. Joe Root, their best player of spin, played back to another big-turning legbreak from Abrar, and was again sent on his way on review. And when, four overs later, Pope top-edged a reverse-sweep to be caught at backward point for 60, England had slipped to 164 for 4. There was time for further damage before the interval too, as Brook – fresh from 240 runs from 181 balls in Rawalpindi – scuffed a slog down the ground high to Mohammad Nawaz at mid-off, to complete Abrar’s debut five-for in the space of 12 astonishing overs.
Stokes, relatively becalmed but still eager to take the positive option, could have made it six before the interval when he all but holed out to long-on. But when Abrar did get his man it was a collector’s item. On 30, and having seemingly bedded into a telling innings, Stokes was drawn forward by another incredible googly that burst from leg to hit the top of off, and left England’s captain as dumbfounded as Virat Kohli had been in 2018, when Adil Rashid memorably did him in in an ODI at Headingley.
Will Jacks batted with poise but impermanence for the third Test innings in a row, reaching his new top-score of 31 before missing a sweep to become victim No. 7. But just when it seemed there could be no stalling the onset of history, Robinson climbed through the line against Zahid and top-edged to midwicket to break Abrar’s stranglehold. Leach was then bowled first-ball on the reverse sweep to leave England’s innings precarious at 245 for 9. But Wood’s late walloping kept the team ethos on track, in spite of the renewed threat from their opponents.
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