Inspiring Zulqarnain gives Pakistan belief
Belief. Goddamn belief. Where have you been hiding all this while? Pakistan might well ask that question after a day in which Zulqarnain Haider, Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Amir played like the most cocksure men in the world. They showed the necessary arrogance to stand up to England, and coupled that with a self-confidence that irritated, frustrated and exhausted in equal measure. By the close Pakistan had done the unthinkable: they had batted a whole day for the first time this summer.
It would have been ridiculous to entertain such a notion in the morning. The other prediction - that Graeme Swann would bowl rather more than his series quota of two overs - came to fruition fast and quick as the best offspinner of the moment deceived Pakistan's specialist batsmen with stunning flight and turn. By lunch, Salman Butt was already pondering what new reasons he could offer for another shameful fold-up. Once again the young and old in the Pakistan top- and middle-order had played aimlessly, flopping into a discarded heap like dirty laundry.
But then came Zulqarnain and Co. who refused to be hung out to dry on the line. After technology spared him the ignominy of a king pair on debut, Zulqarnain steeled himself for whatever England could threw at him for the rest of the afternoon. And let's not fool ourselves. The real story wasn't about how he rose above his debutant nerves. The real story was of how he lorded it over England's bowling. Along with Amir for the 90-odd minutes after lunch, and the next couple of hours in the company of Ajmal, he forced Strauss into a complete re-think of his tactics.
Remember England had one foot squarely on Pakistan's throat already. So something extraordinary was needed to get them off the canvas. But Zulqarnain did something clever. He sensed the bowlers were attacking him but he needed to get back on top. Against Swann he took guard slightly outside leg stump to take lbw out of the equation, as Swann attacked his pads from around the stumps. At other times he was seen walking up the pitch a few yards to face down James Anderson and Stuart Broad. Nothing dents a fast bowler's ego more than a batsman charging him with such impudence. Both gave him a 'don't-you-dare-do-that' stare immediately. He out-stared them.
Even Strauss, at first slip, was rattled. What helped Zulqarnain was Amir's dead-batted defiance at the other end. And whenever Zulqarnain tried to do something silly, it was the 18-year-old Amir who slapped him on his wrists. Ajmal did the same later. Like a nagging pair of parents, the duo protected the newcomer from getting carried away. The three amigos understood patience was key and the only way to push back the enemy.
The other aim was to tire the opposition and make them do things that they would not normally attempt. Like placing two fielders in the deep behind square as Steve Finn mechanically tried to knock Ajmal's block off with bouncers but ended up wasting them. It proved to be a futile tactic as Ajmal grew confident and even notched his own maiden half-century.
Zulqarnian said later he was playing with the psyche of his opponents. It was working. Naively Broad threw back a ball in disgust at him, and earned himself a date with the match referee. Anderson was chirping constantly at the Pakistan wicketkeeper from mid-on, but was just wasting his breath. At times when the situation got out of hand, the Pakistanis were not afraid to have a go at the hosts. Ajmal was seen walking up towards Strauss, asking the England captain to mind his own business. Strauss walked, head down, towards the other end.
Situations such as today's are when a cricketer reveals his character. Zulqarnain, who was picked ahead of Kamran Akmal, could not properly celebrate his debut because his father was in a coma in hospital after contracting Hepatitis C. Syed Raza Haider only regained consciousness on the day the tour selectors picked his son in the team for the second Test. But today the senior Haider watched his son's stoic battle with the English from the hospital bed on TV. He would've been proud of Zulqarnain keeping his head high throughout.
It was double joy for Zulqarnain as the four that got him his maiden fifty also took Pakistan past England and put them into the lead. A more important stat came at the end of the day. In their last 15 Tests over the last two years, Pakistan have batted for 100-plus overs in an innings only five times. It is a damning indictment of their ever-failing top-order. But by the end of the day Pakistan had batted for more overs than in any other Test in 2010.
All three of their lower-order batsmen showed a distinct quality which was sorely missing from the specialists: Zulqarnain, Amir and Ajmal showed the hunger to stay at the crease. They took the blows, the opposition taunts, and battled the pitch and the conditions with a poker face permanently in place. England hated being dominated in such a manner.
"Frustrations arise from the fact that all through the series we have taken wickets at regular intervals and very quick and very easily almost. So when two guys apply themselves that is when our standards drop. But all credit to Pakistan," Swann said of Pakistan's fightback. He even admitted that watching his opposite number Ajmal get his half-century gave "perverse pleasure".
Butt, grim faced on the previous evening, was all smiles today and said he and the other batsmen has a lot to learn from the lower-order today. "It is remarkable the way he played," he said of Zulqarnain. "And he has shown us all that if you are willing to stay there and take the pain there is surely gain."
For the first time this series, Pakistan played proper Test cricket today. They tested England's patience and came out on top. Pakistan might not win the Test, but this particular battle belonged entirely to them.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo