Pakistan fight themselves on crucial day
Last evening, Mohammad Yousuf spoke for an entire nation. A two-hundred lead was very good he thought. Against any other country it was probably insurmountable. This was Australia though, he said, and three hundred would've been nice. In that exchange lies not only one law of cricket - that Australia shall never give you a match - but years and years of Australian rule over Pakistan. It doesn't matter if Shane Warne and everyone else are not around.
Yousuf himself has been on the receiving end of seven losses in nine Tests before this so the nerves are understandable. Across Pakistan probably much the same feeling is floating around. Until the winning runs are hit and the result is inked into the books of history nobody will allow themselves to think otherwise.
Pakistan started today accordingly, as if Australia were 206 ahead not behind. Catches were dropped, lengths were missed, lines lost and fielders too far from the bat. The first session was a muddle. But they stuck at it, placing their fates in the hands of Danish Kaneria.
His poor start added to the tension, though also to the humour. Before the Test, Yousuf had asked for more respect for Kaneria's achievements and his first contributions seemed calculated efforts to do precisely the opposite. He dropped a catch, bowled full tosses and found the left-right opening combination as comprehensible as a blind man might the Rubik's Cube.
But Kaneria's career is nothing if not a song to persistence and belief; having Kamran Akmal as a wicketkeeper decrees as much. Belatedly, post-lunch he began to find some kind of rhythm though the groove wasn't properly locked in until after tea. Then he was a changed man, focused, intense and still comical. The surface wasn't as spin-friendly as it was the last time he bowled here, but in the wickets of Marcus North, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson, he went through a dangerous lower order.
The day was a Kaneria highlights reel: poor bowling, good bowling, many overs, wickets, runs, dropped chances, nearly an entire lap of the ground in celebration. Then he fell over and limped off, job nearly done. If Pakistan do win this, he will not have bowled them to a more important win.
It was that kind of day, bathed in sun, on an improving surface and a determined opponent. Pakistan had to grind their way through, running in the sand against the wind with a bagful of cement for company. It was also a day for Umar Gul.
It's been an odd year for him. He led his side to a grand triumph in England but Test fruits have been harder to come by. Maybe he hasn't adapted back to five-day cricket. The lengths have been missing, sometimes too full, often too short. Waqar Younis said his rhythm was missing and he wasn't getting his run-up right. It has never been as fluid as others and the action is clunkier always, with potential for things to go wrong.
He should still never have been dropped in Melbourne even if in the first innings he was the least threatening of the three fast bowlers. But he picked up the slack today in one of those thankless mid-day spells that the least-pampered fast bowler must endure, when the sun is as much an opponent as the batsman. He ran in well, was quick and did well with his lengths. In Ricky Ponting and Shane Watson - both very clever pieces of bowling - he picked up the day's biggest wickets.
As much as Australia, Pakistan were fighting themselves today. Tomorrow they must do so again; 80 for eight is not up to much for most sides but Australia. Shane Watson says they still believe they can pull this off. Of course they do. If he had said otherwise you'd ask to check their passports. No one in the Pakistan camp is willing to even express supreme confidence. Decorum dictates it obviously, but they also know this is not over. They are close, very close, to something very big. But in Australia you are never over the line until you are over the line.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo