Published on 9 Dec 2022 11:58 pm (UK Time)
A sensational debut by Pakistan leg-spinner Abrar Ahmed helped Pakistan take the spoils on a compelling first day in Multan. The 24-year-old recorded stunning figures of 7-114 as England were bowled out for 281 before Pakistan closed on 107-2, courtesy of yet another Babar Azam half-century. It was an extraordinary debut performance, a combination of mystery and mastery, undaunted and unfazed by England’s typically aggressive approach.
Ben Stokes won the toss and had no hesitation in electing to bat on a dry, abrasive-looking surface that would have any spinner worth his salt licking their fingers. England made one change, with the injured Liam Livingstone replaced by Mark Wood, the Durham firebrand, adding pace and hostility to their attack, perhaps anticipating a similarly placid pitch to the one they encountered in Rawalpindi. Pakistan made three changes, including the debutant Abrar, while somewhat surprisingly omitting the experienced Azhar Ali.
England began in a more circumspect fashion than they had in Rawalpindi, though neither opener looked unduly bothered against the Pakistani seamers, who struggled to extract any movement through the mist. Enter Abrar. With his fifth ball in Test cricket, he had Zak Crawley bowled through the gate, completely befuddled by a snorter of a delivery. England were beguiled but not becalmed, as Ben Duckett started to hit the accelerator, taking the attack to the debutant, sweeping his way to a rapid fifty. As Duckett and Ollie Pope rattled along, a sense of Deja vu started to set in, both exuding confidence, Duckett with his wristy power and Pope with his blend of elegance and audacity, including a truly mind-boggling wrong-footed sweep.
Abrar showed an admirable resilience that belied his inexperience and started to reap the rewards for his attacking lines. Duckett perished LBW after a review, having overturned a decision earlier in the over. Root became his next scalp, pinned LBW on the back foot after another successful review. Pope reached a fluent fifty before becoming Abrar’s next victim, reverse-sweeping one straight to Abdullah Shafique. Harry Brook couldn’t repeat his Rawalpindi heroics, hoisting one high in the air, with Mohammad Nawaz doing well to cling on. England went into lunch at a scarcely believable 180-5 after 33 overs of pulsating, mad-cap cricket, Abrar already with a five-for under his belt.
Stokes and Will Jacks were predictably aggressive when play resumed, Stokes meting out some punishment to the debutant as a fascinating duel started to unravel. Stokes looked comfortable, playing some characteristically muscular shots down the ground, and you felt it might take something special to remove him. Abrar produced, bewitching the England skipper with a magical googly that struck the top of off-stump. It was an astonishing piece of bowling that left Stokes completely open-mouthed. When Abrar brought Jacks’ punchy innings to an end shortly after, Albert Trott’s one hundred and twenty-seven-year record of the best Test figures by a debutant looked in danger as this Test series continues to threaten the record books.
Ollie Robinson ensured Trott’s record remained, skying a delivery from Zahid Mahmood, Nawaz taking another good catch. When Mahmood removed Jack Leach a ball later, it seemed like Abrar may be briefly upstaged, but James Anderson managed to survive the hat-trick ball. Leach’s dismissal was a bizarre one; bowled first ball attempting an ill-advised reverse sweep, which looked as uncomfortable as it did unconventional. Mark Wood hauled England to 281 with an entertaining little cameo, but there was no doubt who the star man was.
It was fairytale stuff from Abrar, who had just 14 first-class matches under his belt coming into this game and had experienced two years out of the game with a stress fracture. Abrar is a resilient character, as typified in his bowling, never wavering from his attacking line, unperturbed by the swishing blades and dancing feet of the England batsman. He’s a player who would undoubtedly fit the McCullum/Stokes mould and must have them pondering whether it’s time to introduce Rehan Ahmed to international cricket.
Pakistan’s reply initially stuttered, the irrepressible James Anderson having Imam ul-Haq caught behind for nought, giving England the early boost they needed. Imam’s dismissal brought the Pakistani captain to the crease, elevated to number three in the absence of Azhar Ali. Babar played with customary class, exemplified by the casual indifference displayed in handling Mark Wood’s brief, rapid spell as he reached yet another fifty in what has been a sparkling year for the Pakistani superstar. Leach removed Shafique with the help of a review and some sharp glove work by Pope, but Pakistan ended the day in the ascendancy, with Saud Shakeel looking increasingly confident as the sun dipped.
It may not have produced the carnage of the first day in Rawalpindi but today leaves the Test intriguingly poised. Pakistan edge the spoils, but if England can remove their talismanic captain early tomorrow, who knows what might happen? The pitch is already exhibiting signs of excessive wear, and batting last on it could pose considerable challenges. England’s total may not be a bad one, and though their positive approach may occasionally trip them up, you feel the pre-Stokes England would have likely withdrawn into its shell today and paid the price for doing so. The ingredients for an enthralling test match are in place- the first Test played in Multan in sixteen years. Well, Abrar Ahmed ensured its return was a memorable one.