On a tour of Pakistan that has thrown up an abundance of magical moments for England’s rejuvenated Test team, it may well be that the sight of Rehan Ahmed dropping to the dusty soil of Karachi to offer a prayer of thanks topped the lot.
At 18 years and 128 days, Ahmed had just broken the record held by Australia’s Pat Cummins and become the youngest Test cricketer in history to take a five-wicket haul on debut. Some 48 hours on from hailing the best day of his life, the leg-spinner had a new contender for the title and with it, more importantly, set his team on course for what would be a first series clean sweep in Pakistan.
As the sun set on the third evening at the National Stadium there was little to suggest any other outcome. Ahmed’s figures of five for 48 from 14.5 overs – coming aged 68 days younger than Cummins in Johannesburg 11 years ago – had seen Pakistan bowled out for 216, setting England a target of 167 to win. And at stumps the tourists had raced to a turbo-charged 102 for two from just 17 overs, leaving just 55 more to get.
Amid this rollicking start to the chase in the gloaming, Ahmed even emerged as the first official “nighthawk” of the new era at No 3 – apologies, Stuart Broad – and carted his first ball off Abrar Ahmed down the ground for four. A second, wristier boundary followed before he was bowled for 10 but through Zak Crawley’s run-a-ball 41, and an unbeaten 38-ball 50 from Ben Duckett, the damage had already been done.
It had taken Ahmed a while to catch the eye of his captain too. A quickfire three-wicket burst from Jack Leach in the morning had made way for nearly three hours of resistance from Saud Shakheel and Babar Azam. Ben Stokes tried to pick the lock with an eight-over spell in the heat after lunch and grew agitated with it, his shy at the stumps seeing Babar bring up his half-century via overthrows.
But in the space of 17 balls before tea Ahmed changed the complexion of the match, prising out both set batsmen and Mohammad Rizwan to see Pakistan 164 for four. Babar’s removal during Ahmed’s second over was galling, drilling a long-hop to Ollie Pope at mid-wicket on 54. But there was little doubt about the follow-up, Rizwan edging behind for seven to end a disappointing series when the right-hander pushed at dipping, fizzing leg-break.
Once Shakeel had fallen for 53, top-edging a googly on the sweep, Pakistan’s brittle lower order had begun. Joe Root had Faheem Ashraf caught at slip after tea, while Mark Wood beat Nauman Ali for pace to end a gutsy 15 lbw. All that was left was for Ahmed to shut down the innings and secure another record, Mohammad Wasim Jr undone slogging a googly and last man Agha Salman sweeping to short fine leg. His father Naeem looking on, Ahmed’s sajdah in celebration was touching.
Not for the first time in the match Leach had seen the headlines pinched by the young debutant and yet his contribution – figures of three for 72 from 26 overs – was no less significant. After a couple of expensive exploratory overs from Root, it was Leach who set the things in motion for his side, claiming the first of his three victims in the space of six balls when Shan Masood attempted a reverse sweep on 24 and heard his under-edge cannon on to leg stump.
Out strode Azhar Ali for his final Test innings before retirement, a player whose service to Pakistan has been immense, not just 7,142 Test runs and 19 centuries but as one of the central pillars of the team that spent 10 years in exile yet rose to No 1 in the rankings. What followed, however, with his wife and children watching on in the sparse stands, was heartbreaking.
Attempting to dance down to Leach fourth ball, Azhar instead yorked himself with the ball – a lovely, dipping delivery – breaking back on to the stumps. As England offered handshakes, and Pakistan’s players formed a guard of honour at the boundary’s edge, the 37-year-old wiped a solitary tear from his eye. Bowled for a duck was no way to sign off, even if consolation could be found in the annals of history through Don Bradman’s famous exit stage left.
Next over, Leach struck with his very next ball, Abdullah Shafique out lbw in identical fashion to the first innings to leave the hosts 54 for three – a lead of just four. But while Shakheel survived the hat-trick amid a cage of vultures, and formed one half of a battling fightback alongside Babar, there was no escaping the sense of destiny that appears to be following Ahmed and this England team.