Joel Wilson knew it was over. You could tell from the way he pointed his finger, almost directly at Naseem Shah: so decisive, so cinematic, the gesture of a man who expects it to be replayed many times.
But first there was the review, and as often in this match, it took ages to come. A gripping denouement was eked out even longer as everyone waited for ball-tracking, and the crowd, who had started their “oohs” too early, were forced to drop an octave and begin again. Even Brendon McCullum looked as if he was feeling the tension.
Among the cache of long-remembered moments from England’s astonishing victory in Rawalpindi, many will capture the final day. Ben Stokes zinging the ball past the edge of the bat and Ollie Robinson singeing it on the side of the stumps. Ollie Pope bunting away a leg-side chance off Azhar Ali, then redeeming himself with an even more difficult one off Zahid Mahmood. Pope casting his entire team into purgatory as he and Joe Root watched the ball fly between them instead of taking what should have been the final catch of the game.
It wasn’t all about England. There was Agha Salman’s tidy straight-drive that brought the target to less than 100 and, shortly after, Azhar chasing down the pitch to Jimmy Anderson and bringing up their 50 partnership. There was the sudden sound of the crowd’s renewed belief and an invisible charge in the air. All of this was powered by Stokes’s declaration.
There was no time for patience and no room for error; every on-field movement felt as precise and intentional as dance choreography. Naseem’s Zorro-style leaves. Stokes jogging back to his mark. Mohammad Ali playing dainty defence, then ducking off at the last drinks break, daring the umpires to ask about his bladder.
Images sparked memories and drew comparisons, some with matches we’d never seen, only their traces in black-and-white: a strangulated John Inverarity in 1968, Derek Underwood drawing his net ever tighter. We’ve seen close-in fields before, every head craned within range of collision. Far rarer to see short-leg knelt in the prayer position, hands extended for a crumb of a catch.
This was England’s third win in Pakistan, after Lahore in 1961 and Karachi in 2000. As the egg-washed sky darkened and a yolky sun began its descent, it was that last win that came to mind. Up in the commentary box, Nasser Hussain was too classy to compare heroics. His team’s win was more dramatic, more vital to a cricketing nation’s self-worth. But this one was better.
Hussain had to fight the light in the final session; Stokes conquered a pitch for five majestic days. The flaccid Pindi wicket was as much his opposing number as Babar Azam and the way he bent it to his will felt Napoleonic, a sporting equivalent of Austerlitz.
To what in cricket do we compare it and where will it stand in the ultimate account? So many of England’s legendary victories have been in the nature of seemingly impossible comebacks, which befits a country that prefers to dress as the underdog. The Headingleys, 1981 and 2019, were the greatest of escapes, where the safe harbour of a draw was never in sight. And you’d have needed strong binoculars to spy it out at the Oval in 1902, when England were 48 for five, before Gilbert Jessop launched his own Stokesian blitz on Australia’s bowlers.
A match England dominated from day one doesn’t share the same step on the podium as these. Its finish, while thrilling, would probably lose out to an Edgbaston 2005, in the popular imagination at least. But it scores highly in several other categories. Its natural stablemates are the games England have bossed against the laws of man and of physics, such as Melbourne in 2010-11. Andrew Strauss’s side, pummelled in Perth, leapt back off the mat to bowl Australia out for 98, and were 157 without loss by the close of day one – the kind of opening to an Ashes Test that England had so often been the wrong side of. A first innings score of 513 put a positive outcome beyond the doubt of even their most lily-livered fans.
Forcing wins in Asia has always been a victory in its own right, and two of England’s great recent performances in Mumbai make for worthwhile comparisons. In 2005-06, their first win in India in two decades was secured despite illness and injury in the camp, not unlike this most recent effort. And the 10-wicket win in 2012-13 under Alastair Cook was only made possible – just as here in Rawalpindi – by some bold and era-defining batting. In that instance, it was one special innings, Kevin Pietersen’s 186 off 223 balls. Against Pakistan, four England players made hundreds and all at strike rates that made KP look a sluggard.
What made this game of Ultimate Bazball stand out was more than its record-breaking run-rates. England’s captain had utter confidence in the ballsy plan and his team’s ability to carry it out, bowlers included. His attack took 20 wickets on a pitch that was DOA – a pitch that had expired, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Perhaps one meaningful comparison is Johannesburg in 2005, when Matthew Hoggard bowled out South Africa’s staunch batting side after England had declared twice and set a target of 325. They were given two sessions to go for them; Stokes offered Pakistan twice that.
His risk-led leadership is unprecedented in English cricket and he has proved he can make it pay. Rawalpindi joins the top echelon of Test-match glory not because we’ve never seen its like before, but because, the way this team are changing the game, we may well see it again.