On the flattest of pitches, England were able to pull off a remarkable fifth-day win over Pakistan in Rawalpindi with captain Ben Stokes the key figure.
By encouraging his side to rack up runs so quickly – they scored their 904 across the Test at a staggering rate of 6.73 an over – Stokes gave his side time to take 20 wickets, and by declaring at tea on day four and setting Pakistan a teasing 343 to win in four sessions, he gave his team opportunity.
Then with attacking fields and his decision to delay the entry of the second new ball as he and his fellow seamers found reverse swing with the old one, Stokes helped England dismiss Pakistan for 268 late on the last evening and secure just their third Test win in the country.
For Sky Sports’ Nasser Hussain, Test cricket leadership has never been done better.
“You think you have seen everything in this game – until you see the last five days,” said Hussain.
“There was no reason at all on that featherbed of a pitch that there should have been a result so I think it was the best bit of Test cricket captaincy I have ever seen to get 20 wickets. I do not think I have seen a better week of captaincy.
“Very rarely do you have five days where you get everything spot on [but Stokes did]. The way he sent his batters out to have fun, score, get you ahead of the game and buy you time at the end. Then the timing of his declaration was spot on, every decision he made was spot on.
“Keeping the old ball, keeping himself back for that old ball, he got right – and his team backed him up. They will run through a brick wall for him. Stokes described it as one of England’s greatest-ever away wins and it is hard to argue with that. I can’t remember a better performance.
“England had to get everything right and they had to walk the walk after talking the talk and saying they weren’t playing for draws. Stokes and [head coach Brendon] McCullum are getting people’s eyes on Test cricket. They have changed the mindset of this England side and this era is changing the face of Test cricket.”
Hussain’s fellow Sky Sports expert and former England captain Michael Atherton added: “Captains generally err on the side of caution – especially in the first match of a series – but Stokes erred the other way and got his rewards. It was also a brilliant declaration – even if the game had been drawn or Pakistan sneaked home I don’t think you would have found anyone criticising that decision.
“Tactically and strategically, it was a masterclass. The way Stokes led the way, encouraged England to score quickly, the declaration, the way he has marshalled his seam resources and then finally taking the second new ball.
“I can’t think of another England side that would have won the game on this pitch, it was so flat that what it needed was a team to score at an unbelievable rate of knots to give them enough time to win the game. England’s run rate was incomparable with anything that has gone before.”
Former Sri Lanka batter Kumar Sangakkara told Sky Sports: “Stokes was absolutely brilliant tactically; the decision to delay the new ball after tea was a masterstroke, his fields, the way he rotated the bowlers and put a lot of pressure on the fast bowlers and himself to deliver.
“Then, in terms of leadership, what he has asked his side to do is stop complaining about the pitch. Can you imagine Jimmy Anderson on a pitch like this, bowling his heart out at a miserly rate and not having a single complaint? That’s incredible. As a fast bowler I’d imagine him being grumpy from day one and complaining all the way through.
“Stokes’ leadership has been exceptional – England had a huddle just before tea and I think he willed that win out of his team. When the conditions are tough, it’s easy to go into your shell and say ‘oh, we’ll just play this one out and hope for better in the next Test’.
“But they looked at this as an opportunity to win. They’ve gone about executing it the best way they know how – score quickly, score big, bowl your heart out, create chances and take risks trying to win. You cannot play this level of cricket without planning. It was meticulous, not just going in and blasting away. England showed how deep this planning goes.”
Sky Sports pundit Mark Butcher added: “If it’s not England’s greatest-ever win, then it’s England’s greatest victory away from home in my lifetime. I thought it was just magnificent.
“You had a team there in Pakistan who were almost handed a victory on a plate – ‘here you go, you’ve done nothing really in the game, it’s been us who has made all the running, we’re also going to give you the chance to win it – and then we knock you over in the most benign conditions of all time’.
“It was utterly fabulous. It’s not often we will sit here and watch every single ball of a Test but I don’t think I’ve missed one. Winning away from home is magical anyway but that will feel like the best moment of a lot of those players’ careers.”