England close to perfection with stunning fightback


Only 13.1 overs were left when England won the third Investec Test and went 2-1 up, with the decider starting at the Oval on Thursday. It was a perfect day for cricket and England’s performance, on a somnolent pitch that favoured Pakistan in their pursuit of a draw, was not far short of perfect.A fascinating five-day arm-wrestle culminated in England, after being sent in and bowled out for 297, defeating Pakistan in the final hour. England’s bowlers had not responded well to pressure on the second day when they were expected to dismiss Pakistan. Now that they were under no such weight – because a draw was favourite – they produced their bestOf Pakistan’s first five wickets, England’s five main bowlers took one each, and they ended with two apiece; Jonny Bairstow was at his best behind the wicket, Joe Root caught one of those low slip chances that have been eluding England, and Cook – having set a far too defensive field initially for Moeen Ali – tightened the screw in time.The first stage of England’s victory push on day five was to bat four more overs for 31 runs. That gave them a safety valve: four overs with the second new ball if a final assault was required to blast out Pakistan’s tail.This preliminary contained a significant over when Moeen danced down the pitch to Yasir Shah and hit the world’s best wrist-spinner for two sixes and a four. Moeen earned the man of the match award. In the longer term he surely has to play as a batsman in Asia this autumn, ahead of James Vince or Gary Ballance, even if he does not bowl a ball.England did not take a wicket before lunch: they were presented with it.Ice cream left in the sun was not so soft as Mohammad Hafeez’s dismissal when he scooped a catch straight to the sole fielder behind square-leg, much as he had done at Lord’s.Until lunch Sami Aslam and Azhar Ali batted with the same assurance as in their first innings stand of 181. Though he was to be bowled shouldering arms, Aslam left the ball with the utmost maturity. This is Pakistan’s first Test tour of England since 2010, but their Under-19 team have toured here, and Aslam was their prolific captain.What England had not really hit upon during the game was a bowling partnership. It finally arrived when Broad opened after lunch with Moeen at the city end. It was time for Broad to take the lead, and he did so by cranking up his pace and making the ball reverse-swing.Broad did not take a wicket, but the runs dried up, and Moeen did. Drifting the ball with the breeze, he prised out Azhar, the man most likely to bat all day as he had batted for all but the first and last overs of day two.By now, at last, Cook had three close fielders round the bat and took the catch himself chest-high at second slip.Anderson followed Broad in reversing it from the pavilion end, and it was beautiful craftsmanship. He swung into Younus Khan then held one up or even made it move away. Three wickets down, 38 overs gone, 46 left. Edgbaston’s crowd was roused.Finn followed on from Anderson. Finn had been deprived of his first wicket of this series when Cook had dropped Rahat Ali in Pakistan’s first innings, but it was worth waiting for their captain, Misbah ul-Haq, especially as it was reverse-swing at its fastest. Four wickets down, 48 overs gone, 36 left.Such was the impact on Pakistan of the removal of their captain that they lost four wickets in 22 balls, as their last three batsmen of note – Asad Shafiq, Sarfraz Ahmed and finally Aslam – followed Misbah. Cook’s captaincy was highly instrumental as he cleverly removed Moeen and brought back Woakes, with more reverse-swing, to replicate Shafiq’s first-innings dismissal: full length, angled in, bat not straight. Five down in 49 overs, 35 left.It was the sixth time in this series Woakes had taken a wicket in the first over of a new spell, such is his accuracy. In his next over he had Sarfraz caught very low down at second slip, the sort of chance England had been missing this summer. The only two drops were screamers when tailenders were in and the result foregone.The sixth wicket of the afternoon was that of Aslam. He had kept on scoring, never blocking, in the hope of reaching his maiden century second time round. At least it was his own misjudegment this time, not Azhar’s, and the minutest one as Finn, so luckless for so long, just feathered his off-stump.At tea, slightly delayed by Cook’s request under a new convention, England had three wickets still to take from 32 overs, then 24 overs to take the final one. Pakistan’s last pair swatted merrily in a partnership of 50 in 11 overs, which served to reinforce how placid the pitch still was, and how penetrative England were.

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