KARACHI: When Wahab Riaz’s almighty heave landed straight into the hands of a running Joe Root at midwicket, Pakistan openers Shan Masood and Mohammad Hafeez must have been mentally preparing themselves for another stern test against England’s pacers. Instead, it was Alex Hales who hared towards the pavilion, as skipper and opening partner Alastair Cook pointed towards himself and indicated that England will bat again.
More than a few eyebrows were raised, with England deciding against asking Pakistan to follow on, despite the visitors trailing by a huge 391 runs — their biggest-ever first-innings deficit. A follow-on can be enforced in a five-day game if the team bowling second manages to claim a lead of 200 or more runs, and 150 or more runs in a four-day game.
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Had Cook asked Pakistan to follow on, the visitors would have had to score more than 391 to make England bat again. Considering the difficulty the Pakistani top-order has had when dealing with England’s seamers so far in this series, it would have been a tall ask.
So why opt to bat again then? For one, this all but certainly eliminates any chance of Pakistan winning this game, with England setting them an almost impossible target of 565. This leaves Pakistan with a draw as their best result; inculcating a negative mindset among batsmen that can often lead to wickets.
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Of course, there is always the possibility of this working in the opposite manner, with the batsmen knowing exactly what is required of them and stonewalling their way to an incredibly unlikely draw.
There have been only six occasions in Test history when a team conceded a lead of more than 200 runs and still managed to win the match, with three of them being occasions where the team followed on and still won.
Had Cook asked Pakistan to follow on, England might well have had to face the Pakistani bowlers on a day five on Old Trafford pitch; and even a couple of sessions and a target between 150 and 200 could have been enough to thoroughly test the English batsmen. However distinctly distant that possibility was, Cook wanted to eliminate it altogether.
But the more time England spends out there in the middle in their second innings, the less overs Pakistani batsmen have to survive. So in theory, England’s batsmen eliminated 50 more overs that Pakistan has to see out.
England’s notoriously fickle weather can also come into the picture and help Pakistan out with some well-timed showers. If that happens, then surely a lot of questions will be asked of Cook’s decision to declare when he did.
The recent return of pacers James Anderson and Ben Stokes from injuries may also have been playing in the England skipper’s mind. Making Pakistan follow on would have meant stretching their bodies to the limit, while the decision to bat again gives them some rest.
Anderson, however, had bowled just seven overs on day three and would have been more than willing to have a go at Hafeez and Masood — both of whom have often struggled against him and the moving new ball.
The decision also ended up providing more confidence to England’s main batting duo Cook and Joe Root, who once again put Pakistan’s bowlers to the sword with some incredibly scored half-centuries.
In the larger context of the series, this will serve to demoralise Pakistani bowlers and give England’s batsmen a psychological edge over them.
Pakistan would have to bat for a record number of overs to stop England from levelling the series 1-1.
Cook’s decision, as things stand, has been vindicated.
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