It's a bright start but Ajmal casts a shadow
Well, that was all very nice, but what does it mean Pakistan 256 for seven at the end of day one on what was supposed to be the flattest track in Test cricket; we’ll take that.
A trio of wickets apiece for Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann and an opening batsman dismissed by Monty Panesar on his return; we’ll celebrate that, too. The justified selection of an unconventional two-seamers, two-spinners attack; so far so good.
Pakistan opener Taufeeq Umar admitting the day belonged to the tourists; what’s not to like England had every reason to leave happy as the sun set here on the Sheik Zayed Stadium.
Got him! Mohammad Hafeez is dismissed by England's Monty Panesar
So why were there so many reservations of judgment, so many caveats to the congratulations, so much apprehension about what follows Thursday’s early mop-up job Two words: Saeed Ajmal. For if Swann and Panesar can clear out four batsmen on the first day of a Test, the 10-wicket inspiration for Pakistan’s victory in Dubai last week is capable of even greater acts of destruction.
What happens next will depend overwhelmingly on whether England’s batsmen can conquer their fear of Ajmal: the borderline legal doosra, the straight one that so few picked.
Pakistan look to be heading for a disappointing total in these conditions, but just 353 runs were needed to defeat England by 10 wickets once Ajmal got to work in Dubai, and Pakistan are fewer than 100 away from that total. They have three wickets remaining and captain Misbah-ul-Haq is unbeaten on 83.
He has lasted three hours and 40 minutes already, hit four giant sixes off Panesar — including two back-to-back off the first two balls of the final over — and has two remaining companions, Ajmal and Umar Gul, who have made reasonable tail-end contributions against England.
Gul scored 65 not out at Trent Bridge in 2010, and Ajmal made 50 at Edgbaston on the same tour. It would require only one of the pair to give Misbah some serious first-session company and Pakistan may post more than 300 again. Ajmal with a decent score to bowl at is a very different proposition.
Danger: Pakistan's Saeed Ajmal will cause England problems
The surprise of the day was a turning pitch. Nothing too dramatic — Pakistan still felt below par with seven wickets gone — but enough to signify trouble ahead unless the demons of Dubai can be cast out.
Considering the bother England had playing the straighter deliveries in the previous Test, Taufeeq was asked if a turning pitch was actually that much of an advantage for Pakistan. It was akin to trotting out the old fallacy about it being harder to play against 10 men in front of Pep Guardiola of Barcelona.
Just as a great passing team make mincemeat of any opposition with a numerical disadvantage — ‘you pass and pass, and eventually you have one man left where they do not, and you score,’ Gianluca Vialli once told me — so a great spinner on a turning pitch is going to be more dangerous than a great spinner on an ironing board.
When Ajmal saw what Swann and Panesar were getting out of the wicket on day one, his pulse must have raced in anticipation.
‘If the wicket turns more, we have the edge, it becomes a big plus for us,’ said Taufeeq. ‘Misbah is still at the crease so, if we post 300 runs, great. He leads the team from the front and he is always a thinking cricketer, so we shall see.
‘England are in a better position now because, with our score, I would say we should only be five wickets down. So what happens next is important.’
Threat: Captain Misbah-ul-Haq remains at the crease for Pakistan
England bowled well, in particular Broad who was brave and tireless, dug a few in short, and was worth figures of three for 47, the pick of their bowlers. Yet the ball was not the problem in Dubai. After the second day, many thought England had bowled their way back into the Test, only to be let down again by the batsmen.
The bowlers were certainly on top in Abu Dhabi, persistent in testing conditions, whole-hearted and dogged in the way they dismissed a succession of Pakistan batsmen who had played their way in, ominously.
Mohammad Hafeez, Younis Khan, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq made scores of 24 or over when they were removed, and had any of that number stayed with Misbah, England could have been looking at a different challenge.
Then again, had England’s fielders not spilled some vital chances — none more so than James Anderson’s poor reaction to a gift from Misbah, offered when the captain had scored 30 — the batsmen could have been in already.
So now we wait. It is to be hoped not too long. These could be the defining sessions in this Test and, therefore, in this series, too. It will be a rocky road back for England if they fail to handle Ajmal a third time.
To lose in straight Tests in the first series as the world’s No 1 side would be a humiliating slap in the face. On Wednesday, England lived up to that marquee pre-series billing; but the biggest challenge is yet to come.