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Buttler blitz blasts England to win and answers doubters

 

By Jonathan Liew

For Pakistan, the end came with a blistering rapidity: bowled out twice in 94 overs, beaten inside three days by an innings.

Perhaps their gargantuan efforts in Dublin and London had taken more out of them, physically and mentally, than was immediately apparent.

As the wickets began to tumble, England quickly realised they were pushing at an open door, on the other side of which lay a vaguely creditable drawn series.

The order of things matters a great deal in sport. One-all would have felt like a pretty underwhelming scoreline for England a fortnight ago, but the resounding nature of their victory here, with improvements in all three facets of the game, will allow them to park the capitulation at Lord's as an anomalously bad week.

Here a correction was demanded, and ultimately, it hardly mattered whether it was the catty words of Michael Vaughan or their own stung pride that had produced it.

Certainly, England approached these three days like a team with a point to prove. And yet as James Anderson and Stuart Broad charged in with the new ball before an animated crowd, as Dom Bess celebrated a maiden Test wicket and a magnificent diving catch, as Jos Buttler (80 not out) pasted the Pakistan attack to all parts during a thrilling morning blitz, you wondered why this side needs to stare into the abyss before reacting, why it has to be humiliated into competence.

Trent Bridge 2017, Perth and Auckland 2017-18, Lord's 2018: all have been followed by acute but fleeting improvement.

This is a team that seems to be better at saving face than it is at saving Test matches. You hope that by the time they arrive at Lord's in August to face India, the world's No1 side, they have learned some alternative motivational techniques. Otherwise, it could be a long old summer.

The frustration is that England are so much better a side than they have been showing over recent months.

When they manage to string several decent sessions together, as they did here, they are a match for any side in home conditions.

If they manage to stay in the game, they have more than enough match-winners to finish the job: a contingent to which Buttler, an unexpected and inspired recall to the side, can now once more be added.

You could sense a crowd shifting expectantly in its seats as Buttler winches himself into position, stepping all the way back in his crease, like a man digging himself a trench.

When he gets going, there is a glorious, lawless abandon to him, the sense that he is shedding all responsibility and consequence, and passing it on to the bowler. But there was so much more to Buttler's knock than indiscriminate violence.

In many ways, it was a splendid Test match innings, perfectly paced and modulated to the situation.

First he counter-attacked at the start of his innings on Saturday night, recapturing the initiative for England, moving to 25 off 31 balls. Then, with Jonny Bairstow out and the new ball taken, he dug in, adding just 9 off 36 balls before stumps.

On Sunday morning, he got himself loose with 11 off 23 balls, keeping the scoreboard moving without taking undue risks. At which point, the dismissal of Sam Curran for a breezy 20 nudged him into kill mode.

He went from 49 to 55 with a top-edged hook for six, and scarcely blocked a ball thereafter: muscling the ball into the off-side gaps, heaving to leg, hitting Faheem Ashraf for one enormous six into the Main Stand building site. By the time Anderson left him stranded, Buttler had bludgeoned a scarcely believable 35 off his last 11 balls, and England's lead was 189.

Too many by far in conditions like this, with Anderson and Broad well rested, with the odd ball still leaping off the surface. Even so, England's new-ball pair deserved credit.

Anderson set up Azhar Ali beautifully, dragging him across his stumps with a series of outswingers before firing one in full and straight and uprooting his middle stump: a beautiful delivery, a poor shot, and an incendiary celebration.

Next Haris Sohail chipped the ball to Bess at mid-off, who took a brilliant left-handed catch, diving away to his left: the sort of catch that a crowd only really appreciates after watching it again on the big screen.

You can't exult what you can't yet believe. Asad Shafiq's glove down the leg side left Pakistan 48-3 at lunch, and the momentum irresistibly with England.

Imam-ul-Haq and Usman Salahuddin made a decent stab at trying to reverse it.

For an hour they quietly withstood, and briefly Pakistan threatened at least to make England bat twice. But after 22 overs, Joe Root introduced the spin of Bess, who managed to drift his sixth ball into Imam's pads to claim his first Test wicket.

It was a masterclass in variation by Bess: quickening his pace from 47mph to 55mph, whilst keeping the line, length and trajectory identical. After unsuccessfully reviewing, Imam ripped his gloves off with fury and smashed his bat into the offending pad, aware that his team's last hope of winning the series was going with him.

And so it proved. Chris Woakes produced a vicious inswinger to dislodge Sarfraz Ahmed; Curran had Shadab Khan caught at slip; Faheem sliced Bess straight into the hands of Dawid Malan at point.

The debutant Salahuddin, who looks a decent player with his low crouched stance and supple hands, resisted for more than two hours before finally losing patience and clubbing Bess straight to mid-on.

Broad mopped up the tail to finish with three wickets in total, moving him past Wasim Akram and Ranganna Herath and into 11th on the all-time list. Bess also finished with three, and with Jack Leach coming back into contention, Somerset will have some interesting selection dilemmas over the coming weeks.

Curran impressed with his attitude, but may still have to wait a while for his second Test. Keaton Jennings looked solid enough on his return to the side. Indeed, few Englishmen have had a better series than Ed Smith.

But the wider picture remains as confusing as ever. Will Root ever score a century again? Is Malan really a world-class No4? Is keeping and batting at No5 really the best use of Bairstow? Is Woakes really the man to rip out the Indian middle order when the sun shines?

And when, exactly, is Mark Wood going to do something? England may have stopped the bleeding in Leeds, but at the end of this wildly juddering series, they still have plenty more questions than answers.

Belfast Telegraph

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