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Pakistan’s Babar Azam hits sublime half-century to frustrate England

Just about the best performance from an England bowler came during a rain break on Wednesday when substitute Mark Wood completed a skilful seven-man move in a game of head football that would not have been out of place up the road at the other Old Trafford.

Otherwise this was an infuriating and quite possibly costly start to the highly-anticipated second Test series of this blighted summer for England, with Pakistan showing why they will prove a much tougher nut to crack than West Indies.

And an embarrassing one for the great old game, too, when umpires Richard Illingworth and Richard Kettleborough inexplicably ended the day prematurely for bad light with the floodlights shining down and two spinners in operation. Truly unbelievable.

All that talk about bursting out of the blocks, about the need to finally make a good start to a Test series proved to be hot air on a cold day when England’s first-choice attack looked flat and listless up against an overlooked figure among the world’s top batsmen.

They were supposed to have been rejuvenated by being allowed out of England’s strict bio-secure bubble after five weeks to be with their families for five days but they looked as though they were still stuck in quarantine.

Yes, Babar Azam showed why his captain Azhar Ali said before this first Test that he already belongs in the same company as Steve Smith and Virat Kohli as he progressed to a classy unbeaten 69 in Pakistan’s 139 for two.

But England could only blame themselves for that because they let the most in-form batsman in world cricket over the last two years settle after he was lucky to survive a beauty that squared him up from Chris Woakes first ball.

At that stage England could be perfectly happy Azhar did what Jason Holder was so reluctant to do and bat first after winning the toss at Old Trafford because they had not only contained Pakistan but took two quick wickets.

The old firm of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad, still stubbornly together despite England’s efforts to break them up, failed to make an early breakthrough and it was only when Jofra Archer and Chris Woakes came together that things started to happen.

This has not been the happiest venue for Archer in his short career as he had his poorest game of the Ashes in Manchester last year, then missed the second Test against West Indies after breaking Covid protocols before under-performing in the third.

Now he delivered an absolute beauty, shaping in to bowl Abid Ali, before Woakes, correctly keeping his place after his five-wicket haul here last week, trapped the most experienced member of the Pakistan line-up in Azhar.

That, though, was where the good news ended for England as their decent early work was wasted after lunch with one of the poorest sessions with the ball their attack have produced for some time.

Anderson strayed too far down the leg-side from the James Anderson End that doesn’t seem to suit him, Broad tended to buck his recent full trend by bowling too short and Archer again seemed to be operating within himself. 

Perhaps Wood would have been better employed bowling than auditioning for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as an alternative to Jadon Sancho.

For Anderson yesterday was a worry. He did not make much of an impact in two Tests against West Indies on his return from injury and would have been the obvious candidate to miss out here had Ben Stokes been fully fit to bowl.

Perhaps it suited Joe Root to protect Stokes and name an unchanged side even though he had a decent bowl before play because it would not have been easy to tell the 38-year-old he would be dropped on his home ground. 

But this was a frustrating day for a bowler who was far from happy with himself for failing to produce his trademark consistency.

Once upon a time England could turn to their off-spinner in Graeme Swann to bring control when the seamers were struggling but Dom Bess remains a work in progress at this level and struggled to take a chance to bowl denied him in the last Test.

But Bess did at least force two chances from the stubborn Shan Masood, both when he was on 45, that were missed by Jos Buttler. The first was a difficult catch but the second was a straight-forward stumping for a keeper at this level.

The questions, sadly, will start up again about Buttler if the errors with the gloves that have crept into his game this summer – his dropping of Jermaine Blackwood at the Ageas Bowl probably cost England the first Test against West Indies – negate the progress he made with the bat in the last game.

If England’s day was maddening then the English umpires who, with the exception of the excellent Michael Gough, have had difficult summers, reached a new low with their over-officious interpretation of rain and bad light regulations.

Firstly they came back out at least half an hour later than they should have done after a lengthy break for rain – England happily enjoyed their game of head football when they could really have been playing cricket – and then came more bad light farce.

Archer’s short ball policy to Babar on the resumption was always likely to attract the attention of the bad light police but when Bess and Root himself joined forces England should have been allowed to bowl for at least another hour.

As it was off they went after just 49 overs of the first day and with another precedent set for light which could come back to haunt the umpires for the rest of this game.

All the hard work, all the expense and all the sacrifice of the opponents to get the game going again in these awful times and then they all troop off with not the remotest bit of danger for the players. Cricket must do better or the Test game really will die.

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