Buttler, Woakes produce battling master-class as England win
England's Chris Woakes (right) plays a shot as Pakistan's wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan (left) looks on during play on the fourth day of the first Test cricket match between England and Pakistan at Old Trafford in Manchester, north-west England on Saturd
Two unusual suspects, Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes, starred in England's nervous three-wicket win over Pakistan in the first Test at Old Trafford. England's pursuit of 277 seemed in shambles when Pakistan had them on the mat at 117 for 5, but Buttler and Woakes dragged them back onto the feet with an ice and fire partnership of 139 runs in 33 overs.
After an exhilarating exhibition of counter-attacking batting, Buttler departed for 75 just before closure, reviving slim hopes of a final twist, but Woakes calmly shepherded England home with an unbeaten 84. The last four of those came off a fortuitous edge, but it also signalled a famous comeback win for England, a fightback that began with Woakes's dismissal of Azhar Ali and Babar Azam on the third day and ended with the glory runs coming off his bat.
The victory could define the series as well as careers. Especially for Buttler, whose England career has been teetering on the brink. Chastened for his sloppy glove-work in the match, especially in the first innings when he twice reprieved Shan Masood, and criticised for his muddled approach with the willow, he walked as if a millstone hung on his neck.
Maybe it was this inexorable pressure that uncluttered his mind. For he shed that mask of caution, he had never looked natural or comfortable in this, and re-embraced the familiar, firebrand avatar. Needless to say, he rediscovered some of his vintage enterprise. Here he was clouting, clubbing, sweeping and reverse-sweeping the Pakistan bowlers. He was beaten a few times, hit on the midriff by Shaheen Afridi's bouncer, but there was no way he would flinch. There were no half-measures, no tenuous prods or shaky strides; he was bristling with newfound purpose. Perhaps the raw purpose of a man who knows there could be no tomorrow. Whichever way he was thinking, it worked. He took Pakistan's bowlers apart, one after the other, rolling back the years. Buttler, you could say, was lost and found in Old Trafford. And a blazing Buttler is an unstoppable force.
Fascinating was how he nullified Yasir Shah, who threatened to tear up England on a pitch that had begun to misbehave. But Buttler threw him off kilter with an oeuvre of sweep shots, the conventional, reverse and the slog, welding power and sophistication. Pakistan's deadliest bowler on the surface defanged, England breathed a sigh of relief.
Shah eventually nailed him on the reverse sweep, but that was after he had wreaked the havoc.
The support act of Woakes, though he eventually outscored Buttler, was invaluable. The under-appreciated all-rounder was instrumental in negotiating Afridi, who he violently drove through covers and slashed through point. Later, when Naseem Shah erred in length, he ruthlessly punished him too. His contributions in shaping the victory can't be overstated. A signature cover drive off Naseem ushered in his first half-century in 17 innings. Like Buttler, this knock could make him tougher to drop, for he had seemed the most dispensable member of England's pace quartet.
Pakistan froze on the face of the onslaught. Their intensity flagged and hope ebbed. They couldn't fend off England's counterpunch. Midway through the second session, the tourists looked all set to deliver the nose-flattening, knockout punch on England. It now seemed a mirage, less an illusion. When Woakes and Buttler joined in the middle, the signs were ominous. Everything was working clockwork for Pakistan. The intensity of their bowlers was suffocating. The strip was turning naughty, as the dismissals of Ben Stokes and Ollie Pope vindicated.
Stokes gloved something off a bouncer from Shah, the latter's googly pole-vaulting into his glove. Pope got a nastier delivery-a delivery exploded into his gloves from a good length. Pakistan seemed an unstoppable force of nature. Pope was the fourth batsman England lost in the space of 31 runs. It began with Dom Sibley playing an uncharacteristically extravagant shot, driving loosely against Shah and ending a resilient 64-run alliance with Joe Root.
In the time England took to add 10 more runs, Naseem took out Root. Naseem, his reputation burgeoning with every spell, made the ball leap off the surface from good length to graze the shoulder of Root's bat, much like the one that got Pope in the first innings. Of all his virtues of speed and stamina, it is this particular facet that would make him a dreadful proposition for batsmen in the future.
The collapse came after a sustained period of persistence by Pakistan's bowlers. They kept hammering away with probing lines and testing lengths; they shuffled their tactics and methods and supported it with lively fielding and livelier chatting. They created a false impression on the English batsmen that a whole lot was happening. It was pure theatre. England's collapse seemed the decisive twist in the match, only that Woakes and Buttler imparted the final twist.