Pakistan v England: Rawalpindi win fully vindicates Ben Stokes & Brendon McCullum

By Stephan ShemiltChief cricket writer in Rawalpindi
England celebrating the decisive wicket against Pakistan
Jack Leach trapped Naseem Shah lbw to leave Pakistan 268 all out and seal England's win

Admit it. You had doubts, didn't you?

Maybe they came when England were 141 all out in the first Test against New Zealand at Lord's, or when they lost by an innings to South Africa on the same ground.

Perhaps you thought they couldn't do it overseas, or that Ben Stokes had bitten off more than he can chew when he declared at tea on the fourth day of the first Test against Pakistan.

If you wobbled, it doesn't matter. England's win in Rawalpindi makes believers of us all.

It is certainly full vindication of the style in which England are playing under Stokes and coach Brendon McCullum, and goes straight into the conversation for their greatest Test win of all time.

Just for a moment, put aside the manner of the 74-run win, sealed in near darkness on the final evening, and consider some bare facts.

England were without all of Stuart Broad, Mark Wood, Ben Foakes and Jonny Bairstow.

They had only ever won two previous Tests against Pakistan outside of the UK, and none for 22 years.

In the time since England last won away, Michael Vaughan and Alastair Cook have led Ashes-winning teams that came back empty handed, while Andrew Strauss' side were ranked number one in the world when they were hammered.

None of the Rawalpindi XI had played a Test in Pakistan before. It contained a batter, Harry Brook, with one cap and another, Ben Duckett, playing his first Test in six years.

Ollie Pope was a stand-in wicketkeeper. Debutants Will Jacks and Liam Livingstone are part-time spinners, and Livingstone didn't bowl because of a knee injury.

On top of all this, England were so badly hit by a virus that if the Test had started 24 hours earlier, they would not have been able to field a team.

The idea of spending five minutes outside dashing distance of the toilet was dangerous, let alone five days.

Then there was the way England played.

Two days before the Test started, James Anderson saw the surface, 22 yards of pancake batter masquerading as a cricket pitch, and said England would have to be "creative" in order to win.

But even Anderson couldn't have known that the level of creativity required meant coming up with ideas even David Blaine would reject as being too out there.

A record 506-4 on day one, an aggregate 921 runs scored at a faster rate than any Test in history. Bowlers going through more plans than Liz Truss, only with success. Field placements that never settled - five, six, or even seven catchers designed to cajole a batter into a mistake.

The masterpiece was the declaration, a chips-all-in gamble designed to risk it all in order to win the lot. It worked.

Former England skipper Nasser Hussain said Stokes' performance was "one of the greatest exhibitions of Test captaincy" he had ever seen.

It even got tongues wagging in Australia.

"McCullum and Stokes changing the way Test cricket is to be played," said former Australia batter Mark Waugh. "Courageous, fearless positive mindset gets them a win in Rawalpindi on the most docile surface.

"I don't think any other team in world cricket would have rolled the dice like that."

No other team in world cricket has Stokes, who called this win one of his best moments in an England shirt.

This is a man who has produced match-winning performances in two World Cup finals and played arguably the greatest ever Test innings by an Englishman.

Yet, it could be that his most important contribution to the game is what he is doing for the England team and Test cricket as a whole.

The longer form, under threat from white-ball cricket, needs love. If it is dying in one part of the world, then everyone is affected. A shrinking pool of competitive opponents is no good to anyone.

"We're trying to make Test cricket as exciting as the short formats," said Stokes. "Who doesn't want to watch a Test go into day five and be played like that?

"Test cricket needs to be looked after. It's the pinnacle - the one that everybody wants to play. If we can make a little indentation into the way other teams play the game, that will only do Test cricket some good.

"We don't want it falling off the planet. It needs to stay around. We'll do everything we possibly can as a team to keep it alive."

Stokes' mantra strikes to the very meaning of professional sport - if no-one wants to watch, what is the point?

The beauty about England's performance in Rawalpindi is it still would have been thrilling, captivating and compelling even if they had lost.

England might have had some cricketers who are better than Stokes and a handful who can match his achievements, but there are perhaps none who are as important.

Mike Atherton, an another ex-England captain and a man not known to hyperbolise, called Stokes "one of the most significant captains we've had".

Where do England go from here?

There are two Tests to come in Pakistan. There seems little point in wondering whether the tourists will sit on their 1-0 lead. They will go full throttle through Multan and Karachi.

Gilbert Jessop has been dead for 67 years, but even he must be wanting some peace from the constant threat to his record for the fastest hundred by an England batter in Test cricket - 76 balls set in 1902.

The man nicknamed 'Croucher' will surely soon be able to rest easy, that mark could even go on this tour.

The 54-ball record for the fastest Test hundred ever is held by a certain Brendon Barrie McCullum. He would probably be all too happy to hand it to one of his current charges.

There will undoubtedly be humps along the way for England, before or even during next summer's Ashes.

It is incredibly unlikely they can keep playing this way and not have the odd setback. They are accepting of this fate.

Remember there was a time not long ago when they had only one win in 17, beaten everywhere from Ahmedabad to Adelaide, the Gabba to Grenada.

Keep the faith. Store the feeling of the Trent Bridge tear to beat New Zealand, or the brilliance of Bairstow and Root against India at Edgbaston. Add the rousing win in Rawalpindi to the list.

We all must be believers now.

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