There was to be no great escape. But, oh, how England almost pulled it off. When the end arrived, as everyone had presumed it would, they were halfway up the final wall, beyond which lay freedom and the road to Sharjah, with the series square.
Through a hot afternoon and into the barely discernibly cooler evening, the late order repelled Pakistan’s bowlers, slow and fast, swing and spin. England had one wicket and 40 balls left when Adil Rashid, who had batted for four hours with care, precision and gallantry, suddenly launched himself into a booming cover drive.
What was going through his mind can only be guessed for now. Perhaps he thought, with some justification, that it was the surest way to survive with seven predatory catchers in touching distance of his bat; perhaps in other circumstances it was the shot for a wide ball turning away; perhaps after a vigil of 172 balls it was simply a momentary lapse in judgment.
The ball spiralled into the covers, where one of the few men out, Zulfiqar Babar, took an elementary catch. Pakistan had won the second Test by 178 runs and thus took a 1-0 in the series with one match remaining.
Valiantly though the tourists defended their ground on the fifth day, it was always bound to be a fraught exercise. The kernel of the dogged resistance movement came in a ninth-wicket partnership between Rashid and Mark Wood, who batted for almost 30 overs together and created the sort of hope against hope which persuades watchers not to leave their seats for fear of upsetting kismet. Wood began with a flurry but then proceeded to match Rashid stroke for measured stroke when he realised that the game was not up.
But England’s carelessness on the third morning, when they shed seven wickets for 36 runs, meant they would always be attempting salvation with one hand tied behind their backs. Nor were their ultimately admirable efforts eased by the events of the final morning.
Starting the day with seven wickets in hand, optimistic observers were recalling the rear guard actions of the recent past in places like Kandy in 2003 (eight wickets in hand) and Cape Town (seven wickets left) in 2010 where they batted 140 overs and 141 overs, respectively, in the fourth innings to save the match in the gloom.
Something in that category would have been necessary yesterday. But by lunch England had lost another three wickets, those of Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Jos Buttler. Root was undone by a ball from Zulfiqar, the more unsung of the Pakistani spin duo, to which he did not quite reach the pitch, allowing it to turn and take the edge.
The departure of Root, who notched his 3,000th Test run, these days makes the heart sink on England’s behalf and will do so until his mates start pulling their socks up. Bairstow hung doggedly around without conveying an air of permanence. He might have picked the googly from Yasir Shah as he closed the bat face but he misjudged the flight and was bowled through the gate.
Buttler was grim-faced and determined with not only a match at stake but his place in the team. Caution was to be his guide. For now, there is a ball with his name on it, however, and the last thing he wanted was one from Yasir that drifted in and then turned sharply away.
That seemed to be that. All over bar the shouting and there was plenty of that coming from Pakistani fielders crowding the bat and no wonder. The match was generally played in a warm spirit and the spat between Root and Wahab Riaz on Sunday about the treatment of the ball was born of the intensity of the moment.
Whatever England did from here on, Pakistan would break through eventually. They were kept waiting and they were kept waiting until they were becoming agitated, wasting two reviews. Rashid was a model of probity, Ben Stokes forced himself to come to terms with the spinners when he played with less than due diligence at a ball from Imran Khan that seamed.
Stuart Broad played boldly but bravely, forcing himself into line, watching the short stuff. He was looking quite his old batting self again and another 23.3 overs had gone by when Riaz produced a magnificent ball that was of full length, dipping, swerving late and travelling at 90mph. It burst through Broad’s defences and might have done for many more.
Enter Wood, jaunty, as is his wont. The manner he approached his work betrayed not a shred of nerves. But there is a steely cricketer behind the breezy façade and he played the spin with soft hands, dug determinedly behind the quick men if he could not leave it.
He was surrounded by fielders when he prodded the persevering Zulfiqar to short point, where Mohammad Rafeez gratefully took the cactch low to the ground, having put down Rashid’s miscued cut in the gully an hour earlier.
The umpires checked that the catch was clean, not wishing to make a mistake now. Neither Bruce Oxenford nor Paul Reiffel put barely a foot wrong in this match, which was full of calls as close as the fielders frequently were.
When Jimmy Anderson appeared, it was as an old hand in these circumstances (Cardiff 2009, Leeds 2014). But he did not have the chance for a reprise and Pakistan took the lead they deserved.
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