A couple of days before his first Test for six years, Ben Duckett made his intentions crystal clear. “If in doubt,” he tweeted, alongside a picture of the opener unfurling his trademark reverse sweep.
Duckett has been true to his word, with all sorts of sweeps forming the bedrock of his century in Rawalpindi and his swift 63 in the second Test. In Multan, where the ball spun much more, it was not just the defining shot of Duckett’s innings, but the entire England order’s. They lived by the sweep, scoring quickly with it, but died by the sweep too, with six wickets falling to it.
In total, England played 50 sweeps, gaining them 77 runs. Six is the second-most wickets England have lost to that shot since records began in 2006 (behind Kandy 2018, when they lost seven). The number is inflated by three tail-enders – with Jack Leach the most grievous example – falling, flailing to the shot.
This, according to Duckett, was a strategic decision, given the ball was turning, the pitch was low, and Pakistan had packed their side with five spin options (using three of them). It helped England rollick along at 5.43 runs per over, their third quickest first innings ever (Rawalpindi, and a rate of 6.5, is number one). The aggression is worth contrasting with how England have played on spinning tops in the past, fencing around, waiting for a ball with their name on it.
“We were really focused on being positive,” said Duckett. "If we didn't score at that rate it could have easily been 150 or 200 all out. It’s clear what our gameplan is and I think the more it spins the harder we will go.”
It is difficult to keep up with this England batting order’s range of sweeps. The entire top seven likes to reverse, Joe Root reverse-laps the seamers, while Pope has one which he plays off the wrong foot.
Not for the first time, Duckett said on Friday “generally my sweep is my forward defence”. He joked that he “tried to sweep every ball” from Abrar Ahmed, the Pakistan debutant who took a brilliant seven-wicket haul. And, while he was one of those to eventually fall to the shot, he showed the way forward for his team-mates.
In Ollie Pope, Duckett found a kindred spirit. Zak Crawley had been dismissed by Ahmed’s fifth ball in Test cricket, a beautiful wrong’un, so Pope simply reverse-swept him for four first ball, setting the tone for a second-wicket partnership of 79 in 61 balls that would see both men sweep with abandon. Pope, who would also end up being dismissed sweeping (for the third time in Test cricket), would score 15 runs from his 11 sweeps.
Duckett’s first two balls from spin were swept for four, and he hardly let up. Of the 27 balls he faced from Pakistan’s spinners, 18 were swept. With regular sweeps, he took 15 runs from 11 balls, although there was a variation here, from the hard sweep to the paddle via the shovel. With the reverse, he scored eight runs from five balls, and two hard slog sweeps brought 10 runs. He went in front of square and behind, offside and leg. Pope’s sweep-count was into double figures, too.
It was not all plain sailing. Before they fell to Ahmed, Duckett and Pope were both given out lbw by Aleem Dar, only to be saved by feathers on their gloves. But there is significant upside, with Duckett explaining that it is the most effective way to manipulate the field.
“It doesn't matter which way it is spinning if you’re sweeping,” said Duckett. “On a pitch like this, I would much rather get out sweeping than playing a forward defence. That got me runs and made me score quick. As soon as the spin came on, I said if I am going to het out it’s going to be sweeping, I’m not going to be caught short leg or anything.
“Two years ago I might have played differently, but with the backing of the captain and coach, I am pretty sure they would have been annoyed with me if I’d got out blocking to short leg,” he said.
“I am gutted I have missed two in the last two games. I will be playing plenty more out here and there’s a chance I get out to it again. But it’s a go to option.
“When the pitch is doing more we will go even harder. It’s probably going to spin more in our second innings. We won’t go into our shell and block it. The way to score runs on this pitch is to be positive. The weep is a great option because there’s not massive bounce, the occasional one might. It’s a great shot to have out here and we will be looking to do the same in the second innings.
There is clearly risk to England’s sweeping, but on slow pitches like this it forms the cornerstone of their aggressive approach. They are not a team who give up their bread and butter.