Toss has been a debatable subject both on and off the field in the recent few weeks. Off the field, there were calls from the former great players to do away with coin contest but the ICC cricket committee, headed by Anil Kumble, decided against such suggestions. On the field, the decision made by England at Lord’s and Pakistan at Headingley propelled the debate whether it was correct to bat after winning the toss.
Both England and Pakistan have struggled to score in the first innings. England were bundled out for 184 in London last week whereas Pakistan could put up only 174 in Leeds.
Headingley is one of those venues where the conditions in sky matter more than the conditions beneath it. Sarfraz Ahmed’s decision to choose batting was ostensibly prompted by a sunny morning. It was a bold call for Sarfraz, as many other captains would have also done, preferred weather over pitch. Not that the pitch demanded bowling first. The grass was missing and it looked brown. The consensus was that the conditions were largely in favour of batting which England proved by finishing the day at 106-2.
Pakistan’s touring commentators were reluctant to call it a wrong decision. The former Pakistan captain Ramiz Raja backed Sarafraz’s decision and called it a fearless move. “It was sunny when toss took place and there was no grass on the pitch,” Ramiz told Geo News. “It was a brave decision.”
Sarfraz’s decision would have been vindicated had the weather stayed like it was at toss or his batsmen batted sensibly in the morning. The first session at Headingley is always a tricky one and demands a cautious approach. In the last five Tests at the ground, teams have lost at least three wickets in the first morning session of the match. But the pitch eases out as the game progresses. There were four centuries and a 95 scored here when West Indies toured last year.
Pakistan at lunch were four down for 68 and the task to recover was in the hands of Usman Salahuddin, making his Test debut, and Sarfraz, the captain who is out of form. Even after a bad start, Pakistan were in a position to score something around 250. The turning point of the innings was perhaps the phase in which Pakistan lost Usman, Sarfraz and Faheem Ashraf for one run.
Pakistan were reduced to 79-7 and could have possibly been bowled out for a sub-hundred total if not for Shadab Khan’s third Test fifty in as many Tests on the tour. He became only the second teenage Pakistan batsman – first being Umar Akmal - to score a fifty in three successive Tests. That was the period when sun was shining and the conditions supported batting.
“Weather plays an important role here. When we were bowling it was sunny. Cloudy weather is expected on the second day, we will try to get wickets as early as possible,” said Shadab, who scored 56 off 52 balls and put a 34 runs partnership with Mohammad Amir and 43 with Hasan Ali.
If the top-order batsmen had survived an hour more or England slippers had a few jittery moments as they had at Lord’s (remember their recent slip catch success is only better than Bangladesh and Ireland) or the in-form Babar Azam was available, the situation for Pakistan could have been better than 174 all out and the decision to bat would have not looked as bad as it is appearing now.
The England pacers came in this Test with better plans. They bowled fuller and made the batsmen to drive. Three of the first four wickets fell to catches in the slips. Pakistan on the other hand believe their bowlers didn’t pitch the ball full enough and that is one thing they need to get right on the second day. Even though Cricviz suggests Pakistan bowlers averaged 10 centimeters fuller than the first innings at Lord’s, it was still short by Headingley standards.
With 68 runs behind and eight wickets in hand, England surely are in pole position. If Pakistan do not strike early on the second day and concede a sizeable lead, the dream of winning the first series in England in 22 years will be all but over.