It’s always called an Art, batting time, even in these days of computer analysts, data-driven decisions and sabermetric Moneyball. Perhaps that’s an unconscious nod in the direction of the labours of Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel or Paul Cezanne returning repeatedly to the Mont St Victoire as a subject for his explorations of light and colour. Batting time requires not the scientist’s detachment but the artist’s obsession; not the calculus of risk and reward best shown by Michael Bevan in a run chase; not an innings in the style of an ear-worming jingle, but an innings conceived as a symphony.
It was surprising that the youngest man on either team was the player who best met the challenge of batting time. In the first innings, Sami Aslam, the Pakistan opener playing his first red-ball cricket match since December, recognised that his bowlers, in dismissing England on day one, had created plenty of space for the batsmen to play at their own pace – and his was very much a relaxed one. At lunch on day two, he had 27, accelerating a little in the afternoon to post a maiden 50 off 135 balls, eventually blamelessly run out by Azhar Ali for 82 in the evening session. Aslam had batted four and a half hours, facing 176 balls and left the crease with his side 181 for 2, still trailing by 116, but nicely placed in the game. If that was an innings of huge maturity from a 20 year-old, his second innings was even more impressive. After Alastair Cook had, against pundits’ advice, batted on to remove any hope at all of a Pakistan win, Aslam had most of Sunday’s (August 7) final day to survive in order to force the draw that would turn The Oval Test into a decider. In the Edgbaston cauldron with England attacking with every ball, that was a stiff ask – one that proved beyond his more experienced colleagues.
Aslam appeared unperturbed. He blocked the good ones and hit the bad ones, occasionally smacking the ball high and hard over a ring of close fielders to relieve the pressure and show the bowlers that they couldn’t have it all their own way. His temperament was good, refusing to waste energy engaging with the sledges and comments that would be coming from James Anderson and Stuart Broad, England’s bowlers with 215 Test matches and a fair few curses between them. Though he would play out maidens and defend and leave as required, he was never becalmed, never rendered strokeless as has become the fashion recently in Test cricket when batting for a draw.