Williamson, Watling hold off Pakistan's surge on even first day
Day 1 Stumps New Zealand 229 for 7 (Watling 42*, Somerville 12*) v Pakistan
This was a day of - pardon the cliché - proper Test cricket. It was a day that Yasir Shah threatened to hijack once more after an extraordinary pre-lunch burst that reduced New Zealand to 72 for 4, with three wickets lost for two runs. Equally, it was a day that Kane Williamson looked to have salvaged for his side with a phenomenally gritty partnership alongside BJ Watling, who finished unbeaten on 42 off 180 balls, having come in to bat all the way back in the first session. In the end, it was perhaps a day that concluded with as little to separate the sides as there had been at the toss, where a delighted Williamson had decided to bat first, as you do in Abu Dhabi.
New Zealand went to stumps with three wickets still in hand, having accumulated 229 attritional runs across 90 overs. Watling kept the innings together after Pakistan looked like they would blow away the tail when Williamson fell, and on a track that is already taking in ludicrous turn for Day 1, every run he and the remainder of New Zealand's batsman can put together could be priceless by the end of the week.
Bilal Asif was just as impressive as Yasir throughout the day, though it wasn't until the final session that he had something to show for it. That was when the pitch started misbehaving altogether more noticeably; the players might gave gone in for tea, but the pitch seemed to be on something stronger than that. The only problem the spinners had was the ball was turning too much, an unusual situation for the opening day of a match. Bilal accounted for Colin de Grandhomme this way, with a sharply turning ball flicked to leg slip, where Asad Shafiq completed a smart catch. Tim Southee, too, fell to the off spinner, and it was around then New Zealand were in danger of being bowled out on Monday before the late resistance of debutant Will Somerville in Watling's company.
But the day was arguably defined by the second session partnership of Williamson and Watling, which accounted for 104 runs in 249 balls. After Yasir's salvo in the opening session, New Zealand were left to pick up the pieces, and the pair foraged and gathered rather well. New Zealand abandoned all other concerns but the defence of their wickets, not worried that the run-rate dropped like a stone. The pair scrapped their way through the 32 overs in the middle session, adding 72 runs along the way, but most gratifyingly, they had the asterisk next to their name that denotes their continued presence at the crease after tea.
Even scoring at more than 2 per over in the session was a climb from where the run-rate was at one point: from overs 20-44, New Zealand added 45 runs to their total, going at under 1.50. In the second half of the post-lunch session though, Williamson began to capitalise as the bowlers' lengths drifted more regularly, and brought up another plucky half-century. He was unbeaten on 71 by tea, but it was altogether slower going for Watling.
The wicketkeeper batsman has been around the New Zealand setup for almost a decade now, and you could see why. Often, he has played innings with complete disregard for his own reputation or instincts, with his reserves of concentration seemingly never running low. Monday was another such day, where for the best part he was simply hanging around for Williamson, an anchor around which his captain built his own innings. He struck only one four in over two sessions of play, but it is that store he sets by his wicket that makes him such a valuable cricketer for the Black Caps. It is not the first time he has done so, and it's unlikely to have been the last.
Williamson, for his part, was desperately unlucky to miss out on what would have been a well-made hundred, chiefly responsible for ticking the scorecard along when Pakistan were at their most menacing. He was the one who declawed Yasir after lunch. He also seemed to take the fangs out of the pitch, which began to look treacherous after he had been dismissed. So supremely comfortable was he at the crease, that it was a shock to see him dismissed with such a well-rehearsed plan. Hasan Ali encouraged a drive on the up, where Asad Shafiq was perfectly positioned for a simple catch, sending the New Zealand captain back 11 runs away from a 19th Test hundred.
In the morning, Yasir's bruising body blows to New Zealand in the last 20 minutes before lunch undid much of the hard work of Jeet Raval and Williamson in the previous hour. It had all been going along steadily for the visitors before Yasir found prodigious turn to beat Raval's inside edge, the ball clipping enough of leg stump to withstand a review from the batsman. That brought a very edgy-looking Ross Taylor to the crease, who went back to a ball so short it was almost a long-hop. It neither turned nor bounced, instead clattering into the batsman's middle stump. Henry Nicholls' dismissal was even softer, with the left-hander sweeping all around a Yasir googly, managing only to catch an edge that dragged it back into the stumps.
The day had begun perfectly for New Zealand. The toss is more important here than just about anywhere in the world outside of Sri Lanka, with the side batting first only ever having lost once. But Pakistan, fielding 18-year old debutant Shaheen Afridi, found cheer in his first spell, trapping Tom Latham in front of the stumps. Fittingly enough for a young man with the future ahead of him, it was a review that got him the wicket, with the umpire originally having turned the appeal down.
Having seen out a crucial passage of play late in the day, New Zealand will need to be up for another one early morning tomorrow. Instead of being skittled out under 225, the lower order has held its own against a surging Pakistan late in the day, even a new ball unable to dislodge the unflappable Watling, with Somerville playing an impressively composed innings on debut. So important is this first innings total any runs scored now already feel like a burden on a potential fourth innings chase, which, judging by the way today has gone, could come far sooner than the fifth day.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000