Ed Hawkins crunches the numbers to reveal what England are up against in Abu Dhabi. Do they have any hope of surviving to remain all-square for Sharjah?
"Chasing a target on a spinning wicket in Asia is one of the great challenges for batting sides."
There is a fair way to go in the second Test between Pakistan and England in Dubai. Yet there is a strong chance that by the end of day three Pakistan could finally be on the brink of asserting their pre-series authority.
Following their charge on the third morning Pakistan were 1.251/4, England 7.613/2 and the draw was disappearing fast at 11.010/1.
Is there still hope for the tourists then, in either third-innings or fourth? They will point to their performance with the ball in the former in Abu Dhabi when they set up an unlikely bolt for victory by stunning the hosts with their never-say-draw attitude.
But one shouldn't place too much store in what happened at the Sheikh Zayed Stadium. In fact, none at all. That Pakistan were bowled out for 173 in just over 57 overs on a road was a freak occurrence. A Black Swan event which one would be foolhardy to reckon was worthy of the name 'form'.
Indeed, that it happened means it is surely less likely to happen again for many years, let alone a few days later. Pakistan will not be as reckless or cocksure again. They will revert to studious type and try to grind England into submission.
Yet restricting Pakistan with the bat in the third innings is the least of England's problems. What will really occupy the minds of Alastair Cook and Trevor Bayliss, the coach, is batting last on a wearing strip with Yasir Shah at his most potent.
This conundrum would not just have troubled England since they lost the toss. It would have been on their minds since the last ball of the Ashes. Chasing a target on a spinning wicket in Asia is one of the great challenges for batting sides.
It is not easily solved. To understand what England are up against - and most importantly to put the odds into context - only 15 sides in history have successfully hunted down 250 or more to win in the fourth innings in Asia.
England's best effort on the continent was 209 to beat Bangladesh in 2002. The next best was in the swinging 60s, although for Ken Barrington and Ted Dexter it was more like the spinning 60s. The pair helped their team knock off 208 on a turner in Lahore.
Aren't these games weighted heavily in favour of the side who bats first? Well, yes and no. In Test history it has paid to bat first more often than not. The win-loss ratio from the 2,138 Tests for the side batting first is 1.049 as opposed to 0.952 for the fielding side.
In Asia, the win-loss ratio is 0.867. One would have thought that would have been higher. That it is not is probably down to the number of draws and, of course, the fact that Asian sides often play Asian sides and both outfits are better equipped for the tricky chase.
Still, it would be fair to say that given the numbers (the highest chase in fourth innings in the UAE is 139), anything over 200 would represent a quest too far for England, who are possibly too reliant on the resilience of just two players - Cook and Joe Root.
That is hardly surprising. They are unflappable types who can wear you down when the match situation requires, although Root is actually one of the rare breed of international batsmen who can adapt his game to any situation. The likes of Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler are attack-minded and on the dustbowls of the UAE such an approach rarely pays off.
Buttler's difficult run with the bat shows no sign of abating. It may well be that England decide to drop him and hand the gloves to Bairstow for the last Test in Sharjah, where they look likely to have to win to square the series. Bairstow has shown application and the switch would allow them to bring in James Taylor, who also fits the bill.
But that is a debate for another day. Until then, we await the denouement and a familiar fifth day struggle between bat and ball and the clock. Will Pakistan get a declaration right? Will they leave enough time?
For your notepad, then, on average sides need 14.5 overs per wicket in the fourth innings on this ground. That gives England a glimmer of hope. It is possible to drop anchor and survive. But winning is a different matter entirely.
Ed Hawkins P/L
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