x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Ajmal could spoil Cook's broth in the Abu Dhabi Test

Pakistan off-spinner sends in-form England opener back to the pavilion before mini collapse as tourists end day two still 50 runs behind with just five wickets in hand.

Alastair Cook fell six runs short of what would have been his 20th Test century.
Alastair Cook fell six runs short of what would have been his 20th Test century.

Ah, for patience in times when time itself seems to be so scarce.

England batted for much of the day as if they fancied batting well into next year, necessarily so given the troubles of Dubai. Pakistan bowled through it as if they knew there was reward at the end but were not quite sure when that end might present itself. So bountiful are the virtues of patience, however, that on a day when only 208 runs – only 208! In an entire day! – were scored in total and eight wickets fell both sides could claim to have come away from it happy.

There was probably no more memorable (the description is used loosely) shot in Alastair Cook’s innings than the forward defensive, front foot out to just the right length, bat straight, ball down and dead on impact. There were some scares – he said he could read Saeed Ajmal “80 per cent of the time,” which, as a percentage in sport is not always enough.

But there were some nice, typically Cook cuts through point – efficient and honed not brassy or loud – and a few whips through midwicket as well which were in danger of appearing pretty. It was built with a limited, but handy range of tools, as Cook’s best innings usually are.

But nothing else was particularly memorable about it other than if it’s seen in its entirety. He did this for nearly five hours, a span in which most sporting contests – including the shortest format of cricket itself – have begun, concluded, dusted, filed, analysed, pored over and forgotten already.

“We set our stall out to bat for a long period of time and for 99 per cent of the day we did it really well,” he explained the virtues of patience later. “In these conditions, when a partnership gets going, it’s hard to break because not much happens and you get used to the conditions. Suddenly the ones you are not timing away or getting away in the first hour, you feel more at ease with it. When you get in, its just about getting into that first hour and everything doesn’t seem quite as hard and you can get into a groove on that wicket.”

Patience can be cruel too because just when it appeared five hours might produce a 20th Test hundred for him and a few more hours thereafter, Pakistan struck. And though they are not often credited with it, Pakistan’s bowling sides have always been pretty good at this patience lark.

So many times we remember them waiting, waiting, waiting, looking increasingly flat as minutes tick by, waiting some more and then striking. And then striking. And then striking some more. The effect is best described in spatial planes: from appearing completely horizontal, they suddenly become very vertical.

It is classic Pakistan. An older version would have done this with some fast bowlers. This is still Pakistan, just in some new, less flashy threads (trousers not ripped, skinny jeans, shirts suitable for office wear not nighttime fun). For nearly 51 overs through the morning and afternoon, as Cook and Jonathan Trott did what Cook and Trott do, little seemed to be happening for them. There were chances and missed opportunities for sure but as the day wore on, it looked as if it might have given them the slip altogether.

But what they did was what an older Pakistan might not have done, or done so well. They maintained a deceptive hold on the day, a firm hand on England’s shoulders, from behind no doubt, but firm for sure.

England never raced into their total even at Pakistan’s most horizontal moments. That is where spin helps; Pakistan’s pace bowlers have always attacked so much that they have been prone to leaking more runs on such days. Instead, Ajmal, Abdur Rehman and Mohammad Hafeez made sure Pakistan were patient, disciplined and never too far behind.

“We had a plan and we were successful in that we knew if we checked the flow of runs, we could get wickets later,” Umar Gul said. “In the first two sessions the wicket helped the batsmen but then our bowlers bowled well in the last session.”

They waited till the very end, the last half hour. And then, like the last kick of the long-distance runner, they sprinted close to England; on current form, Ajmal on a roll is every bit as destructive as reverse swinging pacemen.

And what of the Test after this long, beautiful day that took its time to get not much further, in terms of balance, than where it began? A little patience and we will know soon enough.