Alastair Cook again showed his ability to grind out runs in Asian conditions with a determined half-century against Pakistan A on the opening day of England’s first tour match, although for his fellow opener, Moeen Ali, the occasion proved an anticlimax.
Cook showed the kind of reassuring bloody-mindedness that served him so well on the 2012 tour of India, when his three centuries set up a 2-1 win in his first series as captain.
But Moeen, in pole position to become Cook’s seventh opening partner since that triumphant winter after being selected here ahead of Alex Hales, wasted his first opportunity to impress, being dismissed for a scratchy 22 from 46 balls, playing one injudicious shot too many when he hooked a short ball from the left-armer Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to long-leg.
Ian Bell, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler fared even worse as the middle-order fragility evident last summer reared its head again and, with the three-Test series against Pakistan starting in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday next week, that is a concern. However, those fears will be counterbalanced by Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow joining Cook in contributing half-centuries to England’s total of 286 for six. Both enjoyed stellar summers, Root the outstanding batsman during England’s Ashes win and Bairstow earning a Test recall by the end of that series against Australia thanks to a prolific season with the bat in the County Championship.
Transferring that kind of form from the green, green grass of home to the stifling conditions here is no easy task. Yet the Yorkshire pair did just that against opposition that boasted more than 100 Test caps, thanks largely to the late inclusion of the Pakistan captain, Misbah Ul-Haq.
Root, whose only Test appearance in Asian conditions came on his debut in Nagpur three years ago, looked fluent from the off, save for an early change of bat, sweeping and driving Pakistan A’s spinners with aplomb. He passed 50 in 84 balls before retiring on 59.
Bairstow, whose sole Test in Asia also came on that 2012 tour of India in Mumbai, recovered well after a difficult start. At one stage he went 14 deliveries without scoring before finally finding his feet – and his footwork – to reach the close unbeaten on 66 following an unbroken 103-run stand with another Yorkshireman, Adil Rashid.
The leg-spinner, coming in at No8, struck a belligerent 51 from 81 deliveries after the spinners had turned the screw to reduce England to 183 for six shortly after tea. Rashid, though, will be judged on his return with the ball and will have a chance to show what he can do on Tuesday.
The way this match is engineered, England are expected to declare overnight so they can spend a full day in the field and give their bowlers plenty of overs given that there is only one more two-day match to go before the start of the Test series.
As for the first day, Root said: “It’s very pleasing to see us start like that. Alastair leads from the front when he’s at his absolute best and that’s what we admire him for. Today was a great example of that. Jonny’s played really well too on the back of a fantastic season for Yorkshire. I know he’s desperate to prove himself as an international cricketer and he’s shown in these conditions he can play. That’ll give him a huge amount of confidence leading into the series.”
Cook was one of three wickets for the left-arm spinner Zafar Gohar, caught at leg-slip playing a defensive shot. That sandwiched Gohar’s dismissals of Bell and Buttler, both trapped lbw. The form of Buttler, who averaged 15 with the bat during the Ashes and was pulled out midway through the one-day series, is a real worry.
Stokes, dismissed four balls before Buttler, is less of a concern, even if he showed naivety against the off-spinner Iftikhar Ahmed when he edged behind playing against the spin. All in all England will be happy with their display, even if they know far greater challenges lie ahead.
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