England enter Pakistan stronghold with a place in history at stake

And so to the National Stadium in Karachi, already etched in English cricket folklore as the scene of the miracle in the dark and one where, 22 years on from Graham Thorpe squirting the winning runs off Saqlain Mushtaq after sunset, they pitch up with the comfort of it being a series already won.

Over the past fortnight they have played imaginative, dynamic cricket and met the dual challenges of off-field illness and unresponsive pitches with a remarkable sense of optimism not always seen in the past. All that remains for Ben Stokes and his team in the third Test that starts on Saturday is whether they can record a ninth victory of this transformative year and with it a first 3-0 victory on Pakistan soil.

Do so and only 2004 – a year of 11 Test wins under Michael Vaughan – will sit above it. Given the starting point, that tortured 4-0 Ashes defeat and then the joyless 1-0 demise in the Caribbean, it has been some turnaround under Stokes and Brendon McCullum and a decent riposte to the notion that the English domestic system was so flawed, any change in leadership would be futile.

So much comes back to the liberating methods and psychology of the pair, with one on show two days out from the series finale when Stokes spoke to the written press while decked out in golf attire. Another optional training session had been scheduled, with the four players yet to feature – Ben Foakes, Rehan Ahmed, Jamie Overton and Keaton Jennings – plus Ben Duckett and Joe Root deciding to have a net.

Rather than subordinates in a top-down regime, players are able to make their own decisions on preparation, with Stokes citing Jimmy Anderson’s longevity as the prime example of the benefits. In a country like Pakistan, where the suffocating security measures could have easily led bad memories of the pandemic-era struggle in India to come flooding back, it has been particularly empowering.

“I feel in cricket, especially on long tours, that a lot of training sessions are for the sake of it and you don’t get much out of it,” Stokes said. “You just go there because it’s the thing to be seen to do. I feel there has to be an outcome for that effort, not just turning up, rolling your arm over, having a bat for 30 minutes but not getting anything out of it and not improving as a player. Optional training is the way forward.”

This day at leisure meant Stokes and McCullum were yet to assess conditions at the National Stadium and thus their team was undecided 48 hours out. Among the talking points was whether, with the series secured, now would be a decent time to have a look at Ahmed, the leg-spinning all-rounder who, at 18 years and 126 days, would become the youngest Test cricketer in England’s history.

It’s the type of selection that has some of the old pros growling about caps being given away rather than earned, while for the second week running Stokes could not confirm that Foakes would return behind the stumps. The captain offered one guarantee, at least, that no player is left out by him without being given the unvarnished truth.

He said: “To have to put relationships and emotions to one side in that particular moment is, I feel, something that every captain finds tough. But whenever we’ve made a big decision, like Ollie Robinson being left out of the squad for New Zealand earlier in the summer or Ben Foakes being left out of the second Test here, I don’t think they would have left with any questions [as to] why the selection didn’t go their way.

“I think that’s one thing I’m going to have to stay completely true to, to be honest, and not just make it easier for myself. Because it’s a bit of a cop-out if you do that.”

Whatever the XI, history shows the National Stadium has been a Pakistan stronghold since it was built in 1955. England in 2000 and South Africa in 2007 are the only visiting Test teams to win, the former unlikely to have been the case under current regulations for bad light.

That said, it needed a career-best 10-hour 196 from Babar Azam in the fourth innings to prevent Australia winning here this year.

Indeed, for all of England’s success – that wonderful attacking brio in Rawalpindi and a skilful seam attack led by the remarkable Anderson – it has been hard to escape the notion that they have caught Pakistan at a time of vulnerability. Certainly the hosts have missed Shaheen Shah Afridi, while losing Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf after the first Test showed the perils of asking fast bowlers to instantly switch from Twenty20.

And yet Abdullah Shafique, Imam-ul-Haq, Saud Shakeel, Mohammad Rizwan and Babar himself – plus Mohammad Wasim Jr, a handsome green-eyed quick who may well get his chance this week – all show there is no shortage of talent. As such, like their guests at the start of the year, let’s not jump to diagnose systemic decline.