The first phase of England’s Operation Old Trafford has been successfully completed. With Joe Root’s hands constantly on the tiller and a little crew of eager paddlers alongside, the runs are in the bank. The second phase – the acquisition of 20 Pakistan wickets – which should be the trickier one on such a benign batting surface, has begun and so far this is going rather well too.
At the end of another balmy Mancunian day, Pakistan were 57 for four in response to England’s 589 for eight declared. In the final 45 minutes the match went into overdrive. After a mildly frustrating opening spell of bowling from Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson, when the batsmen were able to watch too many balls pass harmlessly by outside their off-stump, Chris Woakes, England’s self-effacing sensation in this series, intervened decisively once again.
Replacing Anderson from the Pavilion End, Woakes, who had begun the day as a nightwatchman, dispatched two frontline batsman as well as a less gifted nightwatchman, Rahat Ali, in an inspired six-over burst.
With Ben Stokes inducing Younis Khan to edge down the leg-side, England were already well on course to level the series. Just the 16 wickets left to take. First Woakes had Mohammad Hafeez taken at second slip by Root, evidence that the young Yorkshireman’s reflexes were still razor sharp after batting for more than ten hours while accumulating his highest Test score. Then Azhar Ali somehow presented a return catch, easily snatched by Woakes’s right hand. After Stokes’ removal of the elegant fidget, Younis Khan, a bouncer was too hot to handle for Rahat Ali.
The pitch was still behaving decorously but the burden of fielding for so long and having to respond to such a mammoth score was haunting the Pakistan team. For that total England were, of course, indebted to Root.
With barely a blemish he became England’s second double centurion at Old Trafford. He finished with 254, two runs short of Ken Barrington’s monumental knock against Australia in 1964. With some confidence one can surmise that Barrington was not dismissed having an almighty slog against the opposition’s opening bowler (in fact he was lbw to Graham McKenzie).
In the end Root attempted the one cricket shot which he is ill-equipped to play – the slog. The ball went up into the air and Mohammad Hafeez, running in from deep square leg, held a fine diving catch. Another boisterous crowd rose as one to applaud the departing Yorkshireman. Who cares about the colour of the rose on his county cap when witnessing batting of such silky quality?
Root began the day on 141 not out and it soon became apparent that he was hungry for more. Already in his Test career he has revealed an appetite for big hundreds. He was, in fact, more watchful than on Friday, happy to allow his partners to find the boundaries while he bedded in, a rock solid insurance that England would keep batting until Alastair Cook had decided that he had enough runs.
In two sessions Root had gleaned a mere 85 runs, which was relatively pedestrian progress by the standards of the 21st century though rapid compared to the not-so-swinging Sixties world of Barrington. Root was only skittish after tea when he was briefly confronted with the leg-spin of Azhar Ali and the medium pace of Shan Masood, nirvana for any Test batsman, but a luxury that he had earned after almost ten hours at the crease.
Self-denial has rarely been a feature of recent Root innings but here he had been determined to atone for the sequence of failures that has afflicted him in a summer when he has always looked in princely form. The sacrifice of a little ambition had been worthwhile.
Root received good support from all his partners. Chris Woakes, arguably one of the best batsmen to be invited to take on the nightwatchman role, looked as assured as any of England’s middle order. From his bat there were several crisp boundaries as well as the first six of the series when he leaned back and upper cut a Mohammad Amir bouncer over the third man boundary. It was a surprise when Woakes gave Yasir Shah a return catch after completing his second Test half-century.
Out came Stokes, bristling and obviously eager to renew his acquaintance with Test cricket. With few alarms he had proceeded to 34 and was on the cusp of putting the Pakistan attack to the sword when the Durham all-rounder was required to leave the field with even greater reluctance than usual. Wahab Riaz tried a bouncer; Stokes swished at it as the ball sailed down the leg-side and he seemed unconcerned when Pakistan appealed for a catch behind. Umpire Kumar Dharmasena declined to raise his figure and Pakistan asked for a review. This took ages and in the end, by virtue of the evidence of Snicko evidence rather than Hotspot, the verdict was “out”.
Stokes left the field fuming but there were no reports of any damage to the dressing room or, indeed, to any part of his own anatomy upon his return.
No matter; there was still Jonny Bairstow, now at No8, to come. The Yorkshireman settled in discreetly until the tea interval. After the break the England instructions to apply the long handle had obviously been given and when Bairstow was caught, heaving away at Wahab, for 58, Cook declared with the score at 589 for eight.
Wahab’s figures had been restored by two late wickets but Amir had been the most challenging of the Pakistan bowlers. Yasir Shah kept bounding in and there was the odd wry smile at his lot. Yet England’s chief tormentor at Lord’s toiled away for 54 overs for the solitary wicket of Woakes and he conceded 213 runs.
He remains a terrific bowler and there are some good ones, including Ian Botham, who have gone beyond the 200 mark in a Test innings. But this was quite a turnaround from Lord’s.
After two days England, propelled by the fresh faces and burgeoning talents of Root and Woakes, have Pakistan on the ropes.