Spin bowling coach Mushtaq Ahmed admitted Pakistan had found bowling in “tough conditions” hard work on the first day of the third Test, but maintained levelling the series remained within their grasp.
On a day dominated by an unbroken 211-run partnership between Zak Crawley – who scored his maiden Test hundred and stands 29 runs from a double – and Jos Buttler, unbeaten on 87, Mushtaq admitted it would take time for a “very young bowling attack” to learn how to handle pressure.
“It was quite tough,” Mushtaq said at the post-day press conference. “The weather played a huge role. The pitch was very flat, and the toss was vital on that pitch. And because the wind was there the whole day, it was very difficult for the bowlers to control their line and length consistently. It was tough especially for young bowlers like Naseem [Shah] and Shaheen [Shah Afridi]. They are new to Test cricket but they made a huge effort and they can be proud of it.
“I think we are working on how to deal with being under pressure. When the opposition attacks your young bowlers, it naturally is difficult for them to handle it. But obviously, the credit goes to Crawley and Buttler. They played very well, and this is a flat first-day pitch. The wind made it even tougher, and that’s not an excuse, but it’s also reality.”
There were moments during the day when it appeared unlikely Pakistan would have to walk off at stumps quite so despondent. The visiting side had the better of the first half-hour with Shaheen coaxing a nick from Rory Burns to the slips in just his third over, while Crawley was put under pressure early on in a hostile spell where Shaheen honed in on the right-hander’s stumps. Even though England settled soon after and a sharp counter-attack guided them out of danger at lunch, Pakistan would strike back after the interval, England precariously poised at 127 for 4 at one point, with no specialist batsmen to follow.
“We need to try and bowl them out in the first session under 400. That leaves us with over three-and-a-half days and an opportunity to put up a big total ourselves”
Mushtaq Ahmed thinks Pakistan can still square the series
But England repeated the tactic that had served them so well before lunch, and indeed on the fourth day at Old Trafford. A quick counter saw Pakistan spread the field, and any thoughts they harboured of running through the England line-up were quickly replaced by more conservative ideas. That freed up Crawley, who looked invincible by then, and Buttler, who, in an over that seemed to herald a decisive shift in momentum, took Yasir Shah apart, smashing two sixes and a boundary in one over to bring up the 100-partnership.
“When a spinner goes out with young quicks, he has two kinds of responsibilities,” Mushtaq said. “You have to ensure you’re not too expensive, and also be the man who needs to break partnerships. He bowled 29 overs in a spell, and it was all against the wind. All series, England’s plan has been to attack him so he doesn’t settle. So there’s a lot of pressure on Yasir, but we’d been telling him what a match-winner he is.
“His responsibilities this series have increased. Previously, we used to have [Mohammad] Amir and other senior bowlers who kept a lid on the scoring, and that way Yasir was free to just attack. So the burden on him has increased but he bowled very well today, and he’s enjoying the challenge on. But they attacked him well, and without life in the wicket, he struggled.”
He also backed Naseem to come good after a challenging day despite bowling arguably the ball of the innings so far to get rid of the England captain, Joe Root. After a wayward start, he produced a pearler which seemed away from middle and off, and all Root could do was get a thick outside edge, a brilliant moment of play for Pakistan capped by wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan snaring a sensational diving catch from in front of first slip.
It was one that caught everyone, not least Root, by surprise. But as figures of 17-4-66-1 suggest, it wasn’t all hunky-dory for the teenager. Mushtaq denied he was tired and needed a rest, instead emphasising the importance of experience for Naseem.
“Naseem didn’t bowl too many overs in the first two Tests, so fatigue isn’t the issue,” he said. “To learn Test cricket, he needs to play Test cricket. The more he bowls and the more difficult conditions in which he bowls, the better it is for his career. He has the talent, but this is a learning process.
“Today was a difficult day to bowl on, but he’ll learn from it and it will come good later in his career. Sometimes when you have tough days, you learn, and this is what Waqar [Younis] was teaching him, about how much effort to put in, and how to bowl to specific batsmen. The quicker he learns, the stronger Pakistan’s bowling attack will get.
“We need to try and bowl them out in the first session under 400. That leaves us with over three-and-a-half days and an opportunity to put up a big total ourselves. You never know what can happen in the fourth innings, and we have to believe in ourselves. They may have had a good day, but we’ll come out fresh tomorrow.
“The ball is still new, and even if one of our bowlers stands up and makes a contribution, they have a long tail. The pitch is flat and the conditions are there to be exploited. England’s bowlers will find it difficult, too, and we believe we can still win the Test.”