Jimmy Anderson is still alive; he can still smile and he can still bowl; debate over his imminent retirement has stalled. In between the Tests he almost demanded the selectors pick him when he made it clear that he was very keen to play in this Test after his disappointing outing in the last match. It would not take long for Joe Root to be grateful to have him in his line-up.
The ball was swinging in increasingly dank conditions; the odd delivery gripped on the surface and Anderson was a constant threat. He took the first two wickets to fall on another truncated first day when batting was a trial. Given that Pakistan had managed to reach 102 for two England were relieved to pick up three wickets in a rush just before another storm descended upon the Ageas Bowl. So the tourists finished on 126 for five with a fragile tail to follow. However, it is not easy to predict what constitutes a good score here. Batting may continue to be a tricky business if these conditions prevail throughout.
It was a brave decision to bat. When Azhar Ali made his choice at 10.30am the sky was blue and the sun was shining but around the corner were humid, thundery conditions, a day when the Duke ball looks cherry red and somehow retains its dark and devious colour for over after over. The pitch looks an excellent one, with more pace than the one used for the Test here against West Indies five weeks ago. The experts spied more grass than at Old Trafford and the surface was not so dry so the chances of it crumbling are diminished. The ball carried more easily to the keeper and the slip cordon, who sometimes seemed surprised by the pace with which it arrived.
England omitted three pacemen from their squad, Mark Wood, Ollie Robinson and Jofra Archer, who was “rested”. So Sam Curran played. There was an element of hedging in this selection. The absence of Ben Stokes heightens the potential for an absence of runs so the prospect of Curran at No 8 brings some reassurance. Pakistan also hedged a bit by selecting a specialist batsman, Fawad Alam, ahead of the all-rounder, Shadab Khan, for his fourth Test match 11 years after his third one.
In Anderson’s second over he produced the perfect inswinger to the left-hander Shan Masood who missed it, considered reviewing for half a second, and then walked off. Already it was apparent that the ball was moving around. In the next over Stuart Broad found the edge of Abid Ali’s bat and the ball flew towards third slip, where Dominic Sibley dropped it. The alignment of the cordon looked a work in progress, which it is, and they seemed too close together. It did not look any better when Rory Burns at second slip spilled a chance from Abid – on 21 at the time – off Chris Woakes. The bowlers were threatening but when lunch was taken early a determined Abid and a battling yet far from fluent Azhar had taken the score to 62 for one. England had beaten the bat frequently but the chances had been spurned.
After the break Azhar had batted for another seven overs without adding to his score when he edged against Anderson and this time Burns made no mistake. In the meantime Abid had profited from a few educated edges to third man and the odd deflection off his legs. Three figures were raised and Joe Root must have recognised that the batsmen were pulling off something of a heist. Then Curran, who had looked the least threatening of the pace quartet, struck. He found surprising extra bounce and the edge of Abid’s bat before the ball ended in the increasingly secure hands of Burns. Abid’s 60 was worth a lot more on a sunnier day.
Next Asad Shafiq departed, edging a testing delivery from Stuart Broad to Sibley, which brought Fawad to the crease, though not for very long. He is a left-hander with an extraordinary stance, in which he stands tall and stares directly at the bowler before shifting his position just before the ball is delivered. He makes Shivnarine Chanderpaul seem like a pillar of classical orthodoxy. A cunning review when Woakes was bowling saw him lbw to his fourth ball without scoring.
So Babar Azam was now joined by Mohammad Rizwan, the last pair of recognised batsmen. Babar played the shot of the day when he flicked a blameless delivery from Anderson through mid-wicket for four. When the ball was on his legs Babar looked like Viv Richards, when it was outside his off-stump he was more reminiscent of Keith Richards. He remains a dangerous obstacle, who can see a way of scoring whatever the conditions comeFriday morning, storms permitting, Anderson will no doubt be demanding the ball in his hand with all the zest of a debutant.