The deafening acclaim within the National Stadium on Sunday night told the tale of the tour so far. Even allowing for the emotion and excitement of England ending their 17-year absence in Pakistan, there had been fears beforehand that a seven-match T20I series was simply too much to take in, but they were emphatically scotched by the denouement of Game Four in Karachi.
Haris Rauf’s raucous, raw pace bowling, and Shan Masood’s dead-eyed underarm from mid-on, combined to square the series in a game that England won, then lost, then won and lost again – much like their record in the series as a whole, in fact. And the upshot is that part two of the tour, in Lahore, will witness at least two live games out of three, and maybe even the sort of winner-takes-all scenario in Sunday’s seventh game that can serve as the perfect preparation for next month’s T20 World Cup.
That, at any rate, is the spin that England are already putting on a series in which they seem, on paper and even for long passages of each fixture, to be by far the better, more rounded outfit – particularly with the bat. Yet they have twice been pegged back in contrastingly remarkable fashions, by ten wickets on Thursday, and then by two runs in Sunday’s cliffhanger.
“Yes, we would love to have won, but I think when you head into a World Cup, you want to play against good opposition in tough games and it’s been every bit of that,” Matthew Mott, England’s head coach, said on Sunday night. For his own peace of mind, however, Mott will want this week to be the one in which his white-ball team secures their first series win of the post-Eoin Morgan era, after being knocked down a peg by India and South Africa in the summer just gone.
England are at least getting a better idea of where they need to tighten up their gameplans. For instance Moeen Ali, the stand-in captain, did not bowl a single over of his offspin on Sunday night, given that his 21-run over against Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan in Thursday’s thrashing had been the moment in which their spectacular 203-run stand went into overdrive. And by the time their subsequent stand of 97 had been mitigated by Pakistan’s sub-par 20-over total of 166 for 4, it seemed that England had the game at their mercy.
In response, however, their own batting proved a touch too loose for the occasion. It was to England’s credit that they could recover from a scoreline of 14 for 3 after 12 balls and take the game so deep – and with Harry Brook and Ben Duckett in such thrillingly free-flowing form, the likes of Jos Buttler, Liam Livingstone, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes have not been greatly missed in the collective line-up. But equally, Pakistan’s strength remains in its fast bowling, and as Mark Wood proved for England in his solitary outing of the tour to date, genuine pace is not an attribute against which many liberties can be taken.
Wood might well be back in contention for this contest, as England seek a balance between match fitness and workload as he continues to return from an elbow injury, but Buttler will not be risked. His calf tear, sustained during the Hundred, remains a concern with just under a month until the start of the World Cup, and with three T20Is in Australia to come before England’s opening night against Afghanistan on October 22, it may even be that he’ll remain a bystander until they touch down Down Under.
For Pakistan, meanwhile, the challenge is much the same as it has been all series long. Find a means to make a virtue of their clear and obvious strengths, but avoid falling in a heap when Plan A lets them down. So far their batting and their bowling has proven irresistible in one game each. That ratio doesn’t make them favourites, but it does reinforce the sense that you can never, ever write them off.
Pakistan: WLWLL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Pitch and conditions
Two strips have been prepared for the Lahore leg of the series, which implies that the surface for Wednesday’s match will be the same as the one for Game Seven, with the alternate used in between whiles. Heavy rain on match eve meant that both teams cancelled training and therefore a chance to gauge conditions at this stage, although the pitch currently seems dry enough to warrant an extra spinner.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Babar Azam (capt), 2 Mohammad Rizwan (wk), 3 Shan Masood, 4 Iftikhar Ahmed, 5 Khushdil Shah, 6 Asif Ali, 7 Shadab Khan/Usman Qadir, 8 Aamer Jamal, 9 Shahnawaz Dahani, 10 Mohammad Hasnain, 11 Haris Rauf
England (probable): 1 Phil Salt (wk), 2 Alex Hales, 3 Dawid Malan, 4 Ben Duckett, 5 Harry Brook, 6 Moeen Ali (capt), 7 Sam Curran, 8 Liam Dawson, 9 Chris Woakes, 10 Adil Rashid, 11 Mark Wood
Stats and trivia
“When we lost in the summer we were playing poorly. You are a bit more down about those results. It was disappointing result the other night but it was a great game of cricket. Okay, we lost, but I feel we are playing good cricket. We lost a lot of wickets in the powerplay but we managed to stay in the game until the very end.”
Moeen Ali is upbeat about England’s progress as they build towards the World Cup.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket