A bold counter-attack from Chris Woakes and Jos Buttler saw England get away with daylight robbery in Manchester, as the hosts returned from the jaws of defeat to snatch victory over a spirited Pakistan.
Being notoriously slow starters in a Test series is a reputation which has stuck with England in the recent past, but they took it to a completely new level at Old Trafford before scripting a sensational fourth innings run chase.
Having been completely outplayed by the visitors for the best part of three days, Joe Root’s side will count themselves lucky to have sneaked a victory in an enthralling finish on Saturday. At the forefront of their thrilling win in the opening Test were two of the most unlikely heroes in Woakes and Buttler.
Going from villain to hero over the course of four days, Buttler produced a batting performance that might have just saved his England Test career. His diminishing returns with the bat over the past two years had already been under the microscope, and question marks over his place in the side were only raised further after a poor wicketkeeping display in the recent series win over the West Indies.
His multiple dropped catches in Manchester could have proved costly for him and England, with a CricViz analysis showing that those lapses had cost the team as many as 84 runs. Hence, the pressure on his shoulders was immense when he came out to bat at 106-4 on Day Four.
He could only watch from the other end when a Shaheen Afridi delivery absolutely took off from a length to hit Ollie Pope’s gloves. In the same phase of play, Pakistan leg-spinner Yasir Shah was starting to torment the batsmen by making excellent use of the big rough on a deteriorating pitch.
To play for survival in such conditions would have been futile, as England’s top-order batsmen including Joe Root and Pope found out the hard way. Taking the attack to Pakistan’s bowlers though, was an audacious approach from both Buttler and Woakes. In hindsight, it might have been the only way England could have won the Test.
Not many batsmen in the world would have been able to pull off such a precise counter-attack in such testing circumstances, and that is testament to the immeasurable quality that Buttler possesses. It was this quality that saw him earn an unexpected Test recall in 2018, although that spark seemed to be flaming out in the last two years or so.
The skills that make him such an entertaining white-ball batsman were on full show at Old Trafford, with Buttler combining the orthodox and unorthodox to devastating effect. A reverse sweep might have finally been his undoing against Yasir Shah, but not before the right-hander had brought the hosts to the cusp of victory with a rapid 75.
That contribution might still be short of the 84 runs he had cost the team with his wicketkeeping, though it was one which might end the debate surrounding his Test credentials.
“If I had taken those chances, we would not have been chasing 277. I know I was not good enough. I know if I’m going to continue to be a wicketkeeper in this team I have to be better,” he told BBC Sport after the match.
His glove work will surely need to be better going forward, but there are not many that can replace the qualities that Buttler brings to the table for England. His two half-centuries in as many Tests is the same amount that he has managed in the 29 innings preceding them. Whether England should field specialist wicketkeeper is another debate altogether, but Buttler is worth his weight in gold as a counter-attacking batsman.
A similar redemption arc was witnessed with Woakes on Saturday as the all-rounder brought up the win with an unbeaten 84. It was the first time since September, 2018 that the 31-year-old had gone past 50 with the bat in hand. A lean run stretching across 17 innings has brought Woakes down the pecking order for England, with the all-rounder considered a luxury more than a necessity.
Despite always being a reliable performer with the ball in English conditions, he has had to make way for the likes of Sam Curran and Mark Wood on several occasions.
Coming into this Test, Chris Woakes was averaging 8.25 in 2020. He hadn’t made a half-century in more than two years.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) August 8, 2020
While Buttler has made 17 Test appearances for England since the start of 2019, Woakes has only featured in 10 matches during the same period. In these 10 Tests, the Birmingham-born all-rounder has scalped 38 wickets at an average of just 21. His four wickets in Manchester against Pakistan were extremely crucial to England’s cause, especially with James Anderson putting in an off-colour display.
Though his batting returns haven’t exactly been ideal in the past 15 months, his bowling has been good enough on its own to merit a place in the XI. With Anderson and Stuart Broad stealing the limelight for the most part, Woakes’ good work often goes unnoticed.
His all-round display in Manchester has seen the plaudits pour in, but Woakes has been a crucial cog in the England wheel a long time running now. While his overseas record does not flatter him, Woakes should really be considered indispensable in England.
Both Buttler and Woakes played starring roles in England’s thumping 4-1 victory over India two summers ago and the Manchester Test was a nice refresher of their worth to the squad. For Buttler, it is a timely reprieve. For Woakes, it is a timely validation of his all-round credentials. With England talisman Ben Stokes pulling out of the rest of the Test series, Woakes roaring back into some form with the bat could really not have come at a better time for home side.
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