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Cricket news - Strong-willed England pull off yet another heist
England never quite know when they are beaten and nobody showed more of that never say die attitude than Buttler
Finally. After losing the opening game of their last five Test series, stretching back to the start of 2019, England have finally drawn first blood. And how. A 139 run sixth-wicket partnership between Jos Buttler, a man under huge pressure for his place, and Chris Woakes carried England home against a top-class attack in a match they had no right to win at the midway point of the final day. That they did was just typical of this squad. Inconsistent, flawed but capable of the sublime and the ridiculous. They never quite know when they are beaten.
Nobody showed more of that never say die attitude than Buttler. This is why Ed Smith and England's management have showed such faith in him when his form has, arguably, not warranted it. This was the sort of innings that proved their constant talk of Buttler's potential as a Test match batsman is not totally misguided even if he has too often failed to deliver on that promise. It's not stretching things to say that Buttler might have been out of the side come the next Test in Southampton if he had failed in this innings. The pressure on him was significant. "To manage that was outstanding," Joe Root said at the conclusion of the match.
After all, Buttler had a poor Test with the gloves. Indeed, he joked after the game that had he not dropped, and then missed a stumping off, centurion Shan Masood in Pakistan's first innings, when the batsman had 45, England would have wrapped up victory much earlier than they did. He acknowledged he had kept wicket poorly. With the bat, although Buttler played well enough in the first innings, a score of 38 was neither here nor there. It also emerged that his father, John, had been taken to hospital on Friday evening, although he returned home on Saturday. That Buttler was able to play the way he did was testament to his mental fortitude.
Nevertheless, the questions about his role in the side will probably not go away. Even after today, his average with the bat since the start of 2019 is 26.46 and the challenge of scoring consistently in Test cricket remains. Buttler knows that himself. But England will hope this innings gives him confidence - he has looked short of it this summer with bat and gloves - and allows him to see off the challenge of Surrey's Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow. A few more innings like this will certainly do that.
Buttler would not have been able to do what he did without Woakes, of course. The Warwickshire all-rounder, who is averaging 15.80 with the ball in his last three Tests, is having some summer. England picked an extra bowler and asked Woakes to bat at number seven in this match because of uncertainty over Ben Stokes' fitness to bowl. In contrast to his exploits with the ball, though Woakes' form with the bat coming into the Test had been dire, averaging just five from his last six Tests. He was pinned on the helmet by Naseem Shah in the first innings which would hardly have helped his confidence.
And yet Woakes played fluently from the start on the final day, timing the ball through the off-side like he had been scoring runs for fun prior to this game. Perhaps Pakistan will rue not attacking him earlier - they offered up a slew of full deliveries outside off-stump as sighters - but once they tried some short stuff, with Naseem coming round the wicket, Woakes was already in. The pace of his scoring was important too because it meant that Pakistan could not tie up one end. They were leaking runs from both.
This was England's tenth highest successful chase in Test cricket. But at 117 for 5, they looked out of it. For most of the match, they had been chasing their tails and that continued when they lost four wickets for 31 runs after lunch. The last two of those dismissals would not have filled the batsmen to come with any confidence, either. Stokes was caught behind from a ball which passed by his throat, off the leg-spin of Yasir Shah. Then Ollie Pope prodded forward to a full ball from Naseem that exploded off the pitch to thud into his top hand and balloon to gully. If things carried on in that manner, the end of the innings was likely to come in a rush.
Recognising that, Buttler attacked. "After I saw that ball to Ollie Pope, it felt like trying to stay in and bat time, you'd be a sitting duck," he told Sky Sports. Suddenly, Pakistan went from being on the charge to being on the backfoot.
Buttler drove Yasir Shah for a boundary and then reverse-swept him, swept him and then reverse-swept him again. He scored four boundaries, and 23 runs in all, from his first 20 deliveries. Woakes had said after play on day four that England's batsmen had to be positive in pursuit of whatever total Pakistan set them and he lived by those words. Initially, he was even more attacking than Buttler, scoring 22 runs off his first 16 deliveries. It was a double ended counter-punch that set England on their way.
At that stage, both batsmen may have felt that it was worth having a crack. If they got out, well, England were going to lose anyway, right? If they got a start, who knew what could happen? The pressure was, as a result, off both players.
As their partnership grew, however, and England got closer to an improbable victory, the pressure increased, as it always does. Pakistan bowled better, too with Shah coming round the wicket and bowling into the rough outside the right-hander's leg-stump. The metronome Mohammad Abbas bowled straight after tea, keeping things tight. Both Buttler and Woakes reigned themselves in as a result, calmly seeing England to within touching distance of victory before Buttler was LBW to Shah, reverse-sweeping. By then, however the game was as good as won. The pair had scored at more than four runs an over against a formidable attack on an unpredictable surface. It was an astonishing display.
Buttler has previous at Old Trafford, of course albeit against the white-ball. Two summers ago, he scored an unbeaten century in an ODI against Australia, hauling England to a victory they had no right to achieve. Chasing 206, they had slumped to 114 for 8 before Buttler intervened, taking his side to a one wicket victory and finishing on 110 not out. No other English batsman passed 20. This was different because Buttler had Woakes providing excellent support but similar in the way he was able to change the complexion of the chase with his aggression. Indeed, Buttler said he tried to treat this chase the same as he would in a one-day match.
There will be comparisons made too with last year's Ashes Test at Headingley given England were in a similarly dire position here. This was a dramatic last day but not quite at the same level as that unforgettable Test. Here, Buttler and Woakes got England most of the way whereas the victory in Leeds was down to an incredible, unimaginable lone hand from Ben Stokes. There was no crowd in at Emirates Old Trafford either whereas Headingley's Western Terrace raucously willed Stokes on. Plus, England were in the last chance saloon last summer with defeat meaning the Ashes would be lost. This, being the opening game of the series, had less jeopardy about it.
Nevertheless, it was yet another remarkable, come from behind England win to add to a growing catalogue that includes that Test at Headingley and the World Cup final. That they are regularly able to haul themselves back from the abyss shows their mental strength. "Having those experiences in the bank gives you a huge amount of confidence that anything is possible," Root said. "I think our biggest strength as a squad is our character. Never really giving up. We always look at how we can find a way to get back into the game. Today we did it brilliantly." Indeed they did. Although there is little doubt that they would prefer to be taking the initiative rather than playing catch up.
Perhaps the only disappointment at the end of a brilliant Test match was that that there was no crowd to witness it, no spectators to watch a partnership of such quality, played under such pressure. Old Trafford can be a rowdy place at the best of times. Today it would have been going off and deservedly so. Against a high-class attack, on a pitch that offered some assistance to the bowlers, Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes played a fine hand. England might be inconsistent, they might be flawed but they never quite know when they are beaten. And that's not nothing.
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