Sunday in Multan was the halfway point of this historic Test series and an hour after lunch, as a bumper crowd sat silenced by a trio of dismissals usually associated with fast bowlers from these parts, England appeared to be surging towards an unassailable 2-0 scoreline.
Set what would be a record 355 for victory on Pakistan soil after Harry Brook’s second century of the tour – a masterful 108 from 149 balls – the home side were 83 for three and looking bereft. Jimmy Anderson had vaporised Mohammad Rizwan with a delivery to rank among the best of his 674 Test wickets, while Ollie Robinson and Mark Wood picked up collectors’ items of their own.
And yet whether driven by a sense of atonement for their first-innings collapse – or simply the kind of backs‑to‑the‑wall predicament that their cricketers relish – Pakistan pushed back, the diminutive pairing of Saud Shakeel and Imam‑ul‑Haq adding 108 runs for the fourth wicket through two hours of characterful, dogged batting.
Such was the control shown on a pitch playing as well as it had all match, England were starting to twitch. This in part came down to a morning collapse of five for 19 that meant the door wasn’t fully bolted. They had also handed Imam a couple of lives on 19 and 54, Will Jacks putting the local hero down off his own bowling and a faint tickle down leg off Wood undetected by everyone.
But barely minutes before sunset, on a day when his figures took a bit of a pounding, Jack Leach managed to allay some of this creeping English dread, Imam driving loosely to slip on 60 to see Pakistan close on 198 for four from 64 overs. The wonderfully composed Saud was still there unbeaten on 54, however, and a positively intriguing fourth day had been set up.
As was the case in Rawalpindi, it was England’s seamers who looked the likeliest source of wickets and once the tourists regrouped after a shoddy morning, they got the ball to talk. Three wickets fell in the space of 13 overs and, in the case of all three, the batters in question were able to sleep easy knowing there was little they could have done.
Rizwan was first, having moved up alongside Abdullah Shafique at the top of the order with Imam undergoing a scan for a hamstring problem. Though beaten a couple of times early on by Leach as Ben Stokes opened with spin at one end, the wicketkeeper looked in decent order en route to 30 and an ominous 66-run opening partnership.
And yet five balls into the afternoon session, Rizwan was left with the look of man bamboozled by a street magician, Anderson having turned the right-hander inside out with a ball that angled in, nipped away past the outside edge and crashed into the top of off stump. Had the ball held its line, Rizwan would have had it well covered.
As replays of this gem were being watched on loop around the world – stopping the Adelaide press box in its tracks, apparently – Robinson then entered the beauty contest by bowling Babar Azam for the second time in the match. This time there was no defensive shot to beat, however, Babar shouldering arms to one that ducked in lavishly off the surface and hearing the deathly sound of leather on wood behind him.
And when Wood became the third lumberjack on show, the talented Shafique bowled for 45 by one that this time swung in, Stokes and his players could have been forgiven for eyeing up two days at Rumanza Golf Club before the flight to Karachi.
Instead they met two impediments in Imam and Saud, their left‑handedness negating Leach while the seamers grazed and both players happy to make the most of Stokes’s dislike for long on and long off. Jacks struggled to hold his length, with the slingy low-arm darts of Joe Root looking most threatening until Imam’s late lapse in judgment.
This easing of conditions had been flagged first thing when Brook peeled off six fours to turn his already assured 74 into three figures. It was another demonstration of the power and precision the 24-year-old possesses, and why England’s middle order will become as congested as the Multan streets when Jonny Bairstow returns to fitness.
Brook was also one half of a 101‑run stand with Stokes that should have set the template for those lower down, the captain playing watchfully for his 41. That said, when he muscled Abrar Ahmed over the sightscreen first thing, it was his 107th six in Test cricket, equalling the record held by his head coach, Brendon McCullum.
However, a bid to claim the title outright proved his undoing, as well as the start of England’s innings fizzling out in a flurry of slogs. Pakistan have been asked to break their own record at home – 315 chased down against Australia for a one-wicket win in Karachi 28 years ago – and yet 275 all out from 202 for five overnight still felt careless.