The session times of this historic first Test in Rawalpindi have been something of a movable feast, with the only way to counter the discombobulating nature of it to follow the arc of the winter sun before it slowly drops below the horizon and sees the umpires call stumps.
Another certainty on day three was that when Babar Azam strode out to bat during a characterful morning of hustle from England, he would join the list of centurions. Pakistan’s captain and unofficial king was at his regal best, peeling off the eighth Test hundred of his career – the seventh of this run-soaked series opener – and sending another bumper weekend crowd into a state of delirium.
This came moments before many were expecting tea (it instead came 15 minutes later) as Babar rocked back and cut his 126th ball through the covers for four. Ben Stokes, who had sent down a tired long-hop at the end of a four-over burst of muscular heft, could only look on as his opposite number took off his helmet, raised his bat and soaked up the adulation.
It is something of a cliche to speak of the passion in these parts but there is no other word for it. And while fours and sixes from both sides have induced cheers from a crowd not nearly as partisan as some might assume, the volume for those by Babar was at a different level entirely. This is why it was so important for first Australia and now England to return to Pakistan this year and end the long wait endured by the country’s cricket lovers.
Like their Ashes rivals, England are not just here to make up the numbers, however, they are looking for the win. And on a day of toil that tested energy levels and patience, their cause had advanced. Four wickets during an impressive evening session, to go with the three surprisingly winkled out before lunch, meant Pakistan reached 499 for seven from 136 at the close, still 158 runs in arrears following England’s surge to 657 all out in the first innings.
Crucially, Babar was among the batters dismissed late on, Will Jacks claiming the home side’s most prized pelt when, on 136, the right-hander rocked back and went to cut, only to mistime it and send the ball flying to Jack Leach at backward point. Rather than suck the life out of the stadium, it brought a wonderful cooing ovation as Babar reluctantly trudged back to the pavilion.
This was the second wicket for Jacks on a day that saw him end with figures of three for 132 from 33 overs. Like England’s attack as a whole, the debutant had wheeled away stoically on the unyielding surface and been rewarded by batsman error. His first, the dismissal of Abdullah Shafique caught behind by Ollie Pope for 114 ended a stand of 225 runs for the first wicket with Imam-ul-Haq, while his third, Naseem Shah falling to a superb sliding catch by Leach at deep mid-wicket, capped off England’s fightback before stumps.
Though the crowd came to see Babar bat, Leach was never far from centre stage. As well as the curious sight of Joe Root rubbing the ball on his sweaty bald head in the morning – necessity is the mother of invention on the subcontinent after all – the left-arm spinner claimed two wickets in the morning and had racked up 42 overs in the innings.
Imam had turned his overnight 90 into a third Test century on this ground in 2023 and a run-out – his uncle Inzamam’s achilles heel – felt the likeliest form of dismissal. But on 121 the left-hander went to launch a third six off Leach, only to pick out Ollie Robinson at long-on. After Azhar Ali at first drop went to work Leach through the leg side on 27 – Stokes having thrown his frontline spinner the second new ball – only to be pinned in front, Pakistan hit lunch an unexpected 289 for three.
The afternoon was a grind. Though Stokes tried all manner of unorthodox plans, Babar picked off the bowlers with ease, passing 1,000 Test runs on Pakistani soil in the process. Debutant Saud Shakeel at No 5 simply hunkered down at the other end, one half of a 123-run partnership that threatened to break English spirits.
Yet in the first over after tea, Saud’s loose waft behind off Robinson began a final session dominated by England. And sandwiched in between the two strikes for young Jacks was one for the sole survivor from 2005’s tour, Jimmy Anderson profiting from Mohammad Rizwan’s soft chip to Stokes at short mid-wicket. Somehow, despite the certainty of a Babar century and a mountain of runs on the board for the hosts, the England captain was the happier.