England were vindicated in their decision to use an international match to experiment with team changes, after their fringe players powered them to a 14-run victory over Pakistan in Dubai.
England, mindful that they had only five T20I games to play before picking a squad for the World T20 in India, took the brave decision to omit Joe Root and Jos Buttler, both of whom can be considered automatic selections for that tournament, and instead give opportunities to James Vince, who made his T20I debut, and Sam Billings, who kept wicket for the first time in international cricket. There was also a recall for Liam Plunkett, who had not played a game on the tour and who played his only previous T20I in June 2006.
All three enjoyed fine games. And if Billings, who thrashed a 24-ball half-century, was probably the most impressive, Vince, with a classy 41 made in testing circumstances, and Plunkett, who bowled in excess of 90 mph in an impressively fiery spell, also did their chances of inclusion in that World T20 squad no harm at all.
This was an inexperienced England line-up. Only two men – Alex Hales and Eoin Morgan – had 10 or more T20I caps, so when they subsided to 19 for 3 after four overs, with all three wickets coming as the batsmen pushed at balls that may have gripped on a surface used for last week’s ODI, it seemed the absence of Root and Buttler might prove crucial.
But Vince, who timed the ball sweetly and looked far from overawed by the occasion, helped his captain add 76 in 10 overs for the fourth wicket, before Billings pressed the accelerator as England plundered 93 from the last 10 overs and 59 in the last five.
Vince was impressively calm amid the chaos. While he has played one ODI, he did not bat in it – it was the rain-ruined game in Ireland in May – so the manner in which he helped England rebuild while still engineering run-scoring opportunities hinted at a maturity and confidence that can serve England well.
He times the ball unusually sweetly, too. Wahab Riaz, having been pulled for four, was then driven through extra cover as Vince, taking a step back to give himself room, unfurled a flowing drive that may well become familiar in international cricket. His sweep, played off seamers and spinners, is also productive as Imran Khan, powered for six over midwicket, and Shahid Afridi, who was placed for four through fine leg, discovered.
When Vince was beaten by a good slower ball from Wahab – the final ball in a marvellous over that cost only one run and saw Morgan beaten like a snare drum – England could have faltered, but instead they increased the tempo in a passage of play that effectively settled the game.
It took only six balls before Billings produced his first scoop – a perfect pick-up over fine leg for four off the unfortunate Sohail Tanvir – before he charged down the pitch and powered the resulting slower ball over midwicket for four more.
Imran Khan was punished for 14 in three balls as Billings, picking the slower ball, used his power and bat speed to engineer strokes over midwicket, square leg and through mid-on, before Wahab was scooped twice in succession over fine leg – once for four and once for six – despite bowling full deliveries well outside off stump. For the second game in a row, an England wicketkeeper-batsman – running swiftly, playing shots right around the wicket and manufacturing opportunities with his power, confidence and footwork had made bowling look an almost-impossible business.
Pakistan’s reply was given a sheen of respectability by an eighth-wicket stand of 25 and a ninth-wicket stand of 45. But brave though the hitting of Anwar Ali, Sohail and Wahab was, it never looked likely to compensate for the top-order failings.
Plunkett’s spell of 3 for 21 was crucial. While Mohammad Hafeez may consider himself slightly unfortunate to pick out the only man in the deep on the leg side – he timed his pull perfectly – Rafatullah Mohmand was among the batsmen made to look uncomfortable by his sharp pace. Reece Topley again impressed with his control, while so effective were Moeen Ali and Stephen Parry that Adil Rashid was not even required to bowl.
England were helped by some more hapless cricket from Pakistan. As well as dropping two catches that, by the high standards of international cricket, were simple, they produced another comical run out.
The worst of the catches – Sohail’s miss off Alex Hales when he had scored 1 – hardly cost Pakistan anything. But as Sohail stumbled having parried the ball up in the air only to see the rebound hit his shoulder and fall to the ground, it was a reminder that, in this facet of the game, Pakistan are a long, long way behind the rest of the world.
The other missed chance saw Morgan missed at 37. Splicing an attempted cut against a nice slower ball from Imran, Morgan was fortunate that Anwar Ali, at backward point, moved slowly to the ball and put down the chance.
But it was the run-out that really hurt Pakistan. Just as Umar Akmal and Sohaib Maqsood were starting to build a threatening partnership – they added 32 in 21 balls – they found themselves at the same end as Akmal called for a single and Maqsood declined. The sight of them both straining to slide their bat in at the bowler’s end before their colleague did not suggest the tightest-knit dressing room.
Defeat, like victory, should be kept in perspective. This was Pakistan’s first defeat in seven T20Is and, while England have now won four in a row, it is only five T20I games since they were defeated by Holland. Pakistan were also without Ahmed Shehzad, who missed the game due to illness, and Shoaib Malik, who was unavailable due to injury. Partly as a result, Rafatullah became the oldest debutant in the history of T20I cricket at the age of 39 and 20 days.
Still, this was an encouraging performance from England and, after some impressive cricket in the ODI series, a reminder that, for all the embarrassment of the World Cup debacle earlier this year, there is some outstanding young talent developing in England.