A towering stand between Zak Crawley and Ben Duckett laid the groundwork for England, who maintained complete control despite losing three wickets in the afternoon session of the first Test against Pakistan.
The visitors were 332 for 3 at tea, thanks largely to a record 233-run first-wicket partnership between centurions Crawley and Duckett, with Ollie Pope looking solid on 48 not out at the interval, accompanied by Harry Brook on 23.
The last time Crawley faced Pakistan, he hit a domineering 267 to fulfil the promise of three half-centuries in 11 innings.
A turbulent stretch followed that knock in the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic at Southampton’s Ageas Bowl in August 2020, with only a brace of fifties in 21 innings, 10 single-figure scores and two ducks among them, putting his place under increasing scrutiny.
That was until his century in the drawn first Test against West Indies in Antigua in March this year, which seemed to set him up for the English summer, only to be followed by another unspectacular spell until his quick unbeaten 69 off 57 balls in September’s third and final Test against South Africa.
Crawley’s latest innings was next-level in terms of speed, as he perfectly merged England’s assertive approach under Brendon McCullum with the need to make a strong start for his side, who were still recovering from a sickness bug that threatened to delay the match.
Captain Ben Stokes was among those affected, but he faced, and won, an all-important toss as England made just one change to their planned lineup, giving Will Jacks his Test debut in place of a still-recovering Ben Foakes, with Pope taking wicketkeeping duties.
Crawley, one of only four players named in England’s original XI on Tuesday to take part in an optional training session on match day, opened with three fours off Naseem Shah, tucked through deep third and punched twice in succession through long-off, putting England on 14 without loss in the most expensive first over of a Test in two decades.
Haris Rauf, making his Test debut after 57 T20Is and 15 ODIs, came in in the eighth over, but Crawley continued to find the boundary with back-to-back fours either side of the wicket, and the tourists were 63 for 0 after 10 overs.
Duckett last played a Test in November 2016, when he was bowled out for 5 and 0 by a rampant R Ashwin as England suffered a heavy defeat to India. There were times when he believed his Test career was over.
Duckett looked assured on his return six years later after an excellent Championship season for Nottinghamshire, despite his fortuitous slash through third to bring up England’s fifty, as he reverse-swept then ramped Zahid Mahmood to the fence.
Crawley reached his half-century in 38 balls, sweeping Zahid through fine leg for his 11th four, as England reached 100 in 13.5 overs and Duckett reached a run-a-ball fifty in the second hour.
Crawley’s innings was commanding, save for a hearty lbw appeal in the third over, which appeared to be high and with no functioning DRS to test the on-field not-out decision, and a slash off Rauf that went just wide of a slow-moving Mohammad Ali at mid-on to move into the 90s. He had 17 fours by the end of the morning session, and he and Duckett had taken England to lunch with a total of 174 runs.
Pakistan, missing injured Shaheen Shah Afridi and fielding three debutants alongside Haris in right-arm seamer Ali, legspinner Zahid, and middle-order batter Saud Shakeel, appeared toothless and in desperate need of a breakthrough. They eventually got there in the space of eight balls thanks to Zahid and Rauf.
Crawley overturned his lbw dismissal on 99 by playing around Naseem’s full delivery, which rapped him low on the front pad but was shown to be heading down the leg side. Crawley’s deft punch through the covers two balls later brought up an 86-ball century, the fastest by an England Test opener and joint fourth-fastest overall.
Duckett completed his maiden Test century with a pulled four off Rauf that bounced over a sliding Naseem as he attempted to cut it off before the boundary rope, a beaming smile on Duckett’s face as he soaked up the applause.
His stay was cut short when he failed to reverse-sweep Zahid and was struck on the pad in line with off-stump, despite Pakistan having to review Joel Wilson’s not-out decision.
So ended England’s highest Test opening stand against Pakistan, and they went from 233 for 2 to 235 for 2 when Crawley followed a short time later, courtesy of Rauf’s reverse swing as the ball slid through the gate and took a deflection on to middle stump.
Joe Root was bowled lbw by Mahmood for 23 runs, despite burning a review in an attempt to overturn his dismissal, before Pope and Brook raced ahead at a breakneck pace.