Another gripping day of Test cricket ended with Pakistan and England fighting for supremacy after a superb seven-wicket haul for debutant mystery spinner Abrar Ahmed was countered by the early removal of the Pakistan openers.
But Babar Azam hit back with a 57-ball half-century that would not have been out of place in Ben Stokes’s side and, at stumps on the first day of the second Test, Pakistan had advanced to 104 for two in reply to England’s 281. It was all to play for.
After all 10 England wickets fell to spin, with Abrar’s seven followed by three for fellow leggie Zahid Mahmood, Jimmy Anderson quickly chalked one up for the quicks, as Imam-ul-Haq – one of seven centurions at Rawalpindi – edged a back-foot force and was caught behind by Ollie Pope for a duck in the third over of the reply.
The fit-again Mark Wood was brought on to rough up Babar, who had been bounced out by Stokes on the fourth evening of the first Test, and topped 95mph in his first over.
But Pakistan’s captain survived comfortably enough, and the hosts had reached 51 before Jack Leach, who e left-arm spin had been given the second over, found Abdullah Shafique’s edge as he pushed forward. Umpire Marais Erasmus turned down the appeal, but England reviewed and DRS took care of the rest.
After that, Babar enjoyed solid support from Saud Shakeel, who helped him to stumps without further loss. On a day when smog did not delay the start as feared, there were almost 80 overs in all. We can expect a result from here.
Earlier, the England innings had been a predictable flurry of activity, as a smorgasbord of sweeps was punctuated by repeated incisions from the excellent Abrar.
Locals had expressed disbelief when Ahmed was left out at Rawalpindi, where Zahid Mahmood – the more senior of their leg-spinners – was preferred instead, and promptly carted all over the place.
Here, the folly of his omission quickly became obvious, as he slid his fifth ball back through Zak Crawley’s gate to hit the top of middle and off.
With Crawley gone for 19, England were 38 for one, and aware, if they didn’t already know it, that the bespectacled Abrar was no conventional leggie, and more of a finger-flicking, side-of-the-hand mystery spinner of the kind that occasionally lights up the game, keeping the analysts busy and the batsmen guessing.
On a pitch offering far more turn than Rawalpindi, Ben Duckett and Pope swept and reverse-swept like maniacs, apparently determined to score quickly before a ball arrived with their name on it.
Duckett raced to 63 before Abrar overturned umpire Aleem Dar’s not-out lbw decision on review, and then trapped Joe Root, pinned on the back foot by a leg-break for eight to make it 145 for three.
Two more followed by lunch: Pope for 60, furious with himself after failing to control a reverse-sweep and ballooning a catch to backward point, and Harry Brook, caught on the charge at mid-off.
Not since England’s John Lever against India at Delhi in 1976-77 had a bowler taken the opposition’s first five wickets before lunch on the opening morning of his debut Test. And there was more to come after the break.
Having moved effortlessly to 30, Stokes was open-mouthed in astonishment when Abrar turned one back across the left-hander to hit off stump – the defensive shot proof that England had decided not to take too many liberties.
And when Will Jacks was leg-before for 31, having missed an attempted sweep to hand Abrar his seventh, there was excited talk that he might become the fourth bowler in Test history – after Jim Laker, Anil Kumble and Ajaz Patel – to take all 10 in an innings, and the first on debut.
It was not to be, as Mahmood – who continued to leak runs after his mauling in Rawalpindi – had Ollie Robinson caught on the slog at mid-on. Next ball, Mahmood bowled Leach as he attempted a gruesome reverse slap.
Anderson defended the hat-trick ball and, from 245 for nine, England were grateful for some clean hitting by Wood, who smashed eight fours in an unbeaten 36 off 27 balls, before Anderson was bowled by Mahmood.
England were all out for 281, leaving Abrar with seven for 114. For Pakistan, only off-spinner Mohammad Nazir, with seven for 99 against New Zealand at Karachi in 1969-70, has better figures in his first innings as a Test bowler.
Stokes’s team had scored at 5.43 an over, their second-quickest rate when batting first in a Test – behind, you guessed it, Rawalpindi last week.
On a pitch that will get no easier for batting, their aggression might just have kept them in the game.