England surge ahead but chinks are far from fixed

England’s best day since… well it is hard to remember. Of course, even the dry months haven’t been that dry: this is a side that did beat South Africa last summer and follow that up with another series win over an underrated West Indies. The ODI side has offered English fans much joy in between, but even the players might wake up tomorrow morning and double take: “Oh my. We’re winning.”

The last time they cashed in that feeling was at Lord’s last September. Leeds in June looks something of a formality for some long overdue victory beers.

But this wasn’t necessarily a day to shout about. Joe Root might think England are better than their Test ranking of fifth, but only middle sides make the same mistakes that they do. The ICC Test rankings are often ridiculed, but they rarely, if ever, lie. This is a flawed side that has relied on moments of individual brilliance to keep them afloat.

One of those was lost early on the first morning when Ben Stokes was ruled out with a hamstring tear. The recovery period is anywhere between two weeks and two months, which does not bode well for the upcoming block of limited overs cricket against Scotland, Australia and India. Needing to redress the balance of the XI, Surrey allrounder Sam Curran was drafted in for his first cap – the sixth debutant in eight Tests – and Chris Woakes’s superior batting saw him pip Mark Wood to the third seamer spot. The cupboard isn’t bare, but the ingredients just don’t quite fit the recipe.

The opening session was compelling but devoid of quality: a bar scrap that started when Sarfraz Ahmed opted to bat and finished as he walked off for lunch with a few bruises and Pakistan rocked four times for just 68. It could have been worse had James Anderson focussed more on the stumps. It feels a bit like critiquing J Cole for being “a bit wordy”, but given how much Anderson was beating the bat, he could have afforded to put the ball further into the batsman’s half. Chris Woakes, on first change, showed him the way with a couple of wickets before the first break.

Having done the hard work to pick off through the rest of the engine room in the afternoon, taking three wickets in the space of 14 balls, England’s quicks reverted to type for the tail. Talk to those who know and they’ll tell you: lower-order batsmen need special attention. A leggy (come back Adil Rashid, all is forgiven), an express, express quick (anyone?) or a bit of funk tends to do the trick. Without the first two, Root opted for a fly slip. But with a bit of complacency setting in, Pakistan’s last three wickets brought 95 runs, led by Shadab Khan who is making a strong play to become your new favourite cricketer.

The slip cordon still needs work. For the second time in a week, Dawid Malan has a drop against his name because of the tetchiness of third slip. At Lord’s, it was Ben Stokes diving across him. This time it was Joe Root making about 90% of the ground before realising that it was headed straight to Malan’s safe hands at second slip. Root looked a touch too close, not uncommon in conditions like these, when every ball threatens the edge. But the best slip cordons are settled ones, and only when England stick with a top six will they have men behind the bat that their quicks can trust implicitly. The irony here is that Malan is the next head on the block.

He will get his first go on Saturday, with England opting to send Dom Bess ahead of him as a nightwatchman following the demise of Alastair Cook in the 15 minutes before stumps. Both in the first innings at Lord’s and here, you’d argue that he has never looked smoother. And yet one tame hook and he was gone. That 46 looked destined to be so much more.

Yet, even with the above, there was much to savour. Stuart Broad has never bowled fuller and gave an on-field nod that whatever criticism came his way in the week, most notably from his former captain Michael Vaughan, was ill-founded. He made sure to address Vaughan’s comments off the field, too. He did not try and hide the anger.

The only real surprise was that we were not witnesses to one of *those* Broad spells that steamrolls sides and wins England the game in under an hour. He bounded like a racehorse and bounced at the end of his follow-through on his way back to his mark, as if he was in perpetual motion.

Anderson returned from lunch and, given a nudge, pushed his length forward and was rewarded with the sight of Sarfraz’s stumps pointing in different directions, Ashraf trapped in front and a caught-behind to bring to an end Mohammad Amir’s cavalier stay. Even Curran nabbed a maiden wicket when Shadab heaved him to the leg side to dismiss Pakistan for 175.

The fruits of Keaton Jennings’ labour since his axing last summer at the hands of Vernon Philander were clear for all to see when he was pulled up by the square leg umpire. In looking to cover the movement that foxed him in his previous Test life, his starting position outside the crease had him encroaching on the protected area. The rule was changed in October, while the 25-year-old had his head down preparing for a return and accountancy exams.

Nonplussed, he simply moved his guard back and carried on. How much can you say about 29? Well he looked solid and the ball conked out of the middle of the bat in defence, which suggests alignment’s not a problem. The frustration will be that he got out nicking through to the keeper, making it seven of his last eight Test dismissals that have been completed behind the bat. But heck, openers are going to do that. And if there’s a positive manufactured statistic to take away, it’s that the opening stand of 53 with Cook was the first in 12 innings.

Tomorrow brings a new day and the chance for another crisis to sprout up from this likeable but deeply frustrating England side. Still, here they are, well in control of a must-win game that will, at the very least, save them a lot of embarrassment. Today was a performance to put on the fridge: well-meaning, encouraging and one that should quickly make way for something better.

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