In bygone eras, English quicks would have turned their noses up at the Rawalpindi pitch, regarding it as a great injustice.
An underwhelming tinge of beige, offering no movement off the straight, slagged off by the host’s own chair at lunch on day two. Barely worthy of their effort, especially without a trusty Dukes in hand. Any failure had the perfect mitigation given the volume of runs and manner in they were scored. Going into the final day, with 1,580 runs scored for the loss of just 19 wickets, all the excuses were ready to go. This time, however, they were not entertained.
Jack Leach might have taken the glory with the final dismissal, sealing only England’s third win in Pakistan, but it was the seamers who dragged the team to the cusp of victory. They were relentless throughout Pakistan’s chase, committing to every plan Ben Stokes proposed: the short-ball tactic to start with, the suffocation of the run-rate in the middle, followed by the reverse swing that left Leach one pin to knock over. Had Ollie Pope not left an edge off Naseem Shah 6.2 overs before he was trapped lbw by the left-arm spinner, all 10 would have been taken by quicks.
That missed opportunity would have been Stokes’ second, having dismissed Babar Azam on the evening of day four, and no less than he would have deserved after putting so much effort into the field, from tactics to a characteristically punishing 11-over spell after lunch. But he was very much an accessory to James Anderson and Ollie Robinson, who returned four wickets each with unerring accuracy, guile and, perhaps most importantly of all, a remarkable display of endurance.
“The lads are saying that is the best away victory, but I can’t remember many better than that at home either to be honest,” Anderson said. “To force the result on that wicket just took an absolutely mammoth effort from everyone, the way we batted in the first innings, 650-odd runs in 100-odd overs was outstanding.”
Robinson, similarly, was overcome trying to compute the scale of this success. “I think all the hard work I’ve put in over the last 18 months, the dark places that I’ve been, to come here to Pakistan and take 20 wickets on that wicket is my proudest moment as an England cricketer. Definitely.”
Those comments speak of the juncture in their careers at which both players find themselves. At 40 years old, with 176 caps to his name, there is no better judge than Anderson on how high this victory should rank. He admitted to Stokes that he was emotional ahead of their media engagements at the end of the match. For a player famed for keeping his feelings in check, it was something his captain took as a clear indication of just how special this was.
“The way we took ten wickets in that first innings was difficult,” Anderson said. “I thought the spinners helped us out a lot in that innings. Then the way we then went out, with a real clarity of, ‘we’re going to set them something today’.
“We knew we’re going to declare [on day four] and have a bowl at them that night. We didn’t necessarily think it would be at tea. But the way we batted allowed us to declare at tea and dangle them a carrot which, on this wicket, I think we needed to do.
“Because, as we saw at the back end of the day, when they just dead-batted it, it was very hard to get anything out of it. But I just thought today was a massive effort. We got the ball reverse-swinging, which was huge, absolutely huge.”
That achievement might, on the face of it, have looked like a happy accident. But it was in fact the consequence of a carefully considered tactic, as Anderson himself was held back from the new ball for the first time since the second innings at Chennai at the start of 2021, which also happened to be the last time England won a Test away from home. Instead, England started with bumpers from Robinson and Stokes, helping to rough up one side of the ball before Anderson came into the attack. His first two overs were short before the ball began to tail.
“The way Robbo bowled and, actually, the way Robbo and Stokesy bowled with a new ball last night, I thought was brilliant, that bouncer theory got a couple of early wickets, and set the ball rolling. And then today we knew it was going to be a nervy one. But the way we stuck at our task was just brilliant.”
Robinson, meanwhile, is a relative youngster at 29, and this was his first Test victory overseas. But we are barely six months on from the very public laments about his fitness in the Caribbean, after the issue was first raised at the end of last winter’s Ashes series. The message was received loud and clear. Again, Stokes was a facilitator, speaking to Robinson early on in his tenure to underline his qualities as a bowler but reinforce the need to be able to give everything to the cause. He returned in the summer during the Test series with South Africa looking slender, but the 43 overs of grind across both innings – split 21-22, and incisive throughout – reinforced his increased durability.
“I woke up [on the morning of day five] and I didn’t feel sore,” Robinson explained. “And I think that’s a great sign for where I’m at and where my body’s at.
“I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done and the England backroom staff, and how good they’ve been with me and got me into this place. So it’s just been a really good team effort and I’m chuffed to be here now.
“It’s one of those games you need all 11 players to pull as hard as they can in one direction. And I think we did that really well. And obviously the light’s just gone and we just got the victory.”
The prospect of going again so soon after such effort, with the second Test starting in Multan on Friday, does not faze him. “I do actually, yeah,” was his answer when asked if he thought he could back this up. “I feel like a couple of days of rest and a little training session before the second Test and I’ll be okay. I’ll get a couple of ice baths and a bit of treatment from the physio, a few rub-downs, and hopefully be ready to go.”
There is a lot to be said for the way the relationship between Anderson and Robinson has blossomed, ever since the latter found himself around the Test squad during the extended group practices that were a necessity during the 2020 Covid summer. Robinson’s skills immediately caught Anderson’s eye – as it did the rest of the group, who started calling him “Glenn McGrath” – and immediately considered him not just a peer but someone who could give him a few ideas. And in the absence of long-time bowling partner, confidant and friend, Stuart Broad, who is on paternity leave back in the UK, Anderson has an ideal replacement.
The pair consulted throughout their time in the field, with one always at mid-on or mid-off when the other had the ball in their hand. By the end, it was mostly about encouraging the other to keep going, rather than imparting any specific advice. “Things like ‘keep your legs up, pick your legs up’,” Anderson explained. “Just keep running in, just focus on the next ball. Just keep it really simple.”
“We [the seamers] didn’t bowl a huge amount in the first innings, 20-odd overs [each]. It wasn’t a huge workload. So we were fairly fresh coming in to day five, even though we didn’t have much rest. But I just thought we kept each other going. There were times when one of us would flag and then the other one would have to pick him up. And say just keep going.”
Robinson admitted that he even joined Anderson in trying to elicit a reaction from Pakistan’s line-up, in a bid to break their concentration in those crucial final passages after lunch. Not that the Sussex quick needs an excuse to let a batter know what was on his mind. But having seen Anderson indulge in a bit of sledging, he figured he might as well reinforce the senior man’s aggro.
“I think that’s part of my game, trying to get under their skin. And I felt like we did that with a few of their batters and got them out of their bubble, playing a few shots that they might not have played.
“I think that’s part of the game isn’t it? Try and get a bit out of the opposition and it makes it more enjoyable as well. So yeah, I followed Jimmy.”
England arrived into Multan on Tuesday, later than expected after their chartered flight was delayed by three-and-a-half hours due to fog. They will have Wednesday off before training on Thursday ahead of the second Test. A call will likely be made on whether Anderson and Robinson can go back-to-back, especially with Mark Wood understood to have overcome his hip injury.
Should they get the chance once more, however, the pair will be motivated to build on what has been an outstanding start to this tour for the team and themselves, and will no doubt drive each other in a bid to reach the same heights.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo