Alastair Cook saved his career yesterday. For England, it was about the only good thing to emerge from the third Test.
The rest was gloomier than the skies above The Oval on the third day and it would have taken much more than the floodlights – which were turned on at The Oval for most of the proceedings – to illuminate their batting.
Pakistan, sensing at last that they could compete in this series, instigated a monumental collapse in the final session which should ensure that they go to Lord's with a chance to square matters. Cook scored 110, his colleagues together merely one run more, 11 fewer if the extras are deducted.
His dismissal led to mayhem. England lost six wickets for 26 runs, the cream of their middle order coming and going without, as it were, knowing whether they were coming or going. Cook's innings came in the nick of time, and as if his colleagues were so delighted for him that they were only too glad to let him have the glory they came and they went.
For most of the morning and well into the afternoon, Pakistan were denied many pickings. But they stayed consummately patient, plotting their course, faithful that at some point the reverse swing of their fast men and the doosra of Saeed Ajmal would do the trick. And how. England, pretty confident that they could not bat as indifferently as they had in the first innings, were swept away in an hour. They fell from 194 for three to 220 for nine. In short, they caved in. Bad light came briefly to their rescue to curtail the day – but presumably not for long. They are 146 ahead.
Good teams respond quickly to patches of vulnerability. But Cook apart, not one of their top six in this match has made more than 36 and that was a life-sapping vigil of more than three hours by Jonathan Trott. It has been an eminently forgettable exhibition.
For the second time in the match and with the groundwork, for once, done, they were badly short of the necessary. They were up against some smart bowling but the arts of when to leave and what shot to play has deserted them. The new-fangled training gizmos installed at the National Performance Centre have not yet taught them to read wrong 'uns of whatever pace or the old tricks.
Considering that this bunch of selectors have manacled themselves to the notion of continuity – as, rightly, with Cook – they may not have a clue what to do. They may also consider that one defeat after six consecutive wins is not yet cause for panic.
But the Ashes loom. It is possible that England may yet get out of this – though the batting and bowling roles on either side will have to be reversed and then some – but it is to be hoped that they have a plan B secreted away somewhere in the ivory tower.
None of this was yet of import at the start of play. All the attention was on Cook. When he went out to bat at the start, unbeaten on nought having faced two balls the night before, he was out of form and shortly to be out of favour. Under his helmet, he was a picture of anxiety, and dark circles beneath his eyes betrayed a week of sleepless nights.
He had made 106 runs in his previous seven Test innings and he was desperate. The brooding skies could have been made to match his countenance. The sun never broke through but when Cook departed the scene four hours later he was of entirely sunnier disposition. Briefly, that is.
Last night, cricket being forever an individual game within a team context, he would have slept the sleep of the just.
It was his 13th Test hundred and his first on home soil for 18 innings. It was a wonderful example of how to react to the most exacting of circumstances. Why, by the end, he was in something like form. Cook must have asked himself a thousand times as he turned over in his bed how he should approach this innings. Having come up with no answer he might have asked the question a thousand times more.
Considering the selectorial policy there was no certainty that failure in England's second innings would have decreed his omission for that final Test of the summer at Lord's. But the vultures understandably were circling.
Batsmen are paid to make runs and Cook's wretched sequence had encouraged them to swoop low. Another low score and he would either have been dropped or gone into the last Test more desperate still. Soon there would be nowhere to turn.
He was clearly strained and nervous and he flirted with danger at first. Two edges in an over flew in front of second slip, and catastrophe was at hand when an attempted cut against Wahab Riaz flew between first and second slip.
Before they could finish the exchange of "After you," "No, after you" the ball had fled to the boundary. Between times there was the odd clip but mostly Cook thrived on the cut. He was not asked to leave as often as he might have been – and often refuses to do so – but he refused to defend.
Cook dominated the scoring first with the nightwatchman, Jimmy Anderson, and then with Trott. Anderson went unnoticed but stayed around for 40 minutes, which meant he had done his job.
For a long while Trott's circumspect approach seemed apposite. Cook was playing for his career at the other end, Trott would be his rock. It seemed to lend an air of necessary solidity.
But as the day went on this was to pall. Cook was doing all the scoring and Trott was doing next to none. Less than an hour after lunch, Cook reached his century in the strangest circumstances imaginable.
He was on 97 when he played a regulation forward defensive to Mohammad Asif. The bowler, in his follow through, picked up and threw the ball in the direction of wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal. But it was high above his head and went for overthrows. Cook's relief was evident and as he removed his headgear the dark circles appeared to have gone, he was bright-eyed again.
At first, there was no sign of what was to come. Kevin Pietersen joined Trott after Cook's demise (Riaz having his revenge) and they pootled along, without much conviction but without undue alarm. Then it happened.
Pietersen misjudged an off-break from Ajmal, done in the flight and, in the next over, Trott sliced a drive to gully off Mohammad Aamer. Trott had squandered his vigil of more than three hours. As he has done before, Trott grew worse as the innings wore on and perished in the end because he realised he could not go on as he was.
Paul Collingwood tried a punched drive off the back foot and was caught behind, Eoin Morgan was utterly outsmarted by Ajmal, Matt Prior nicked Aamer behind to give Kamran Akmal his fourth catch and Graeme Swann was bowled being cramped for space. By this time, England could not have read the Beano, let alone the bowling that was on offer.
The Oval Scoreboard
England v Pakistan
Third Test (Third day of five) England lead Pakistan by 146 runs with one second-innings wicket remaining
England won toss
England First Innings 233 (M Prior 84; W Riaz 15-63, M Asif 3-68).
Pakistan First Innings 308 (A Ali 92no, M Yousuf 56; G Swann 4-68).
England Second Innings
A Cook c Akmal b Riaz: 110
173 balls 17 fours
J Anderson c Akmal b Ajmal: 11
30 balls 2 fours
J Trott c Ali b Aamer: 36
130 balls 4 fours
K Pietersen b Ajmal: 23
45 balls 5 fours
P Collingwood c Akmal b Aamer: 3
E Morgan b Ajmal: 5
†M Prior c Akmal b Aamer: 5
G Swann b Ajmal: 6
21 balls 1 four
S Broad not out: 6
14 balls 1 four
S Finn not out: 0
Extras (lb 5, w 2, nb 5): 12
Total (9 wkts, 76.2 overs): 221
Fall: 1-4 (Strauss), 2-4 0 (Anderson), 3-156 (Cook), 4-194 (Pietersen), 5-195 (Trott), 6-202 (Collingwood), 7-206 (Morgan), 8-210 (Prior), 9-220 (Swann).
Bowling: M Aamer 18.2-5-51-4 (w1) (2-1-5-1, 3-0-14-0, 4-0-16-0, 2-1-6-0, 7.2-3-10-3), M Asif 16-7-45-0 (nb2) (1-0-1-0, 4-1-14-0, 2-1-3-0, 6-3-14-0, 3-2-13-0), W Riaz 8-1-40-1 (w1, nb3) (3-0-18-0, 1-0-13-0, 4-1-9-1), S Ajmal 31-7-71-4 (1-1-0-1, 30-6-71-3), I Farhat 3-0-9-0 (one spell).
Third day progress: 50 in 14.2 overs, 100 in 26.3 overs, Lunch 110-2 (Cook 76, Trott 15) 32.0 overs, 150 in 46.5 overs, Tea 194-3 (Trott 36, Pietersen 23) 61.0 overs, 200 in 65.2 overs, Cook 50: 77 balls 9 fours. Cook 100: 148 balls 16 fours.
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) & A L Hill (NZ).
TV replay umpire : B F Bowden (NZ).
Match referee: R S Madugalle (S Lanka).Reuse content