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The Bulletin by Sidharth Monga
November 24, 2009
Mohammad Asif - he of the persuasive wrist, the smug smile, the quietly provocative mannerisms - was back. Ross Taylor - scratchy start followed by spurts of arrogant strokeplay followed by spells of quiet prudence - played one of his more mature knocks at Test level. The support cast was there too: Mohammad Aamer and Saeed Ajmal, a surprise success on a first-day seaming track, kept the batsmen grounded; Martin Guptill got his maiden fifty and started New Zealand's recovery, and Brendon McCullum and Daniel Vettori thwarted the bowlers in the final session. Result: an engrossing day's play with New Zealand claiming a slim advantage thanks to Pakistan's poor fielding.
It was no surprise that the day should have begun eventfully. Mohammad Yousuf became the first ICL player to captain a national side, Vettori perhaps the first captain to call at the toss in a Test being played in his country. Then the start itself. Aamer must have grown up - if that is possible for someone aged 17 - watching Pakistani bowlers demolish New Zealand in New Zealand with swinging yorkers, and he did the same. The first ball of the series swung into Tim McIntosh, who got hit on his boot on the full. The ball then went on to the bat and through to the stumps.
Guptill looked to counter-attack, driving emphatically, using the tiny straight boundaries and the third-man gap to his advantage. New Zealand raced to 22 in four overs, Guptill to 18 off 17 balls. All three Mohammads then combined superbly for immediate gains: Yousuf put in a fourth slip to block the third-man gap and Asif and Aamer pulled back the lengths a touch, having realised there was no swing to be had. Result: Asif caught Daniel Flynn on the crease, and an inside edge made it 27 for 2.
Taylor and Guptill then dug deep into their reserves of patience and judgement, and a bit of luck, to keep the menacing Pakistan seamers at bay through their 117-run partnership. Aamer, Asif and Umar Gul hit near-perfect lengths in the first session, bowling just short of a length and outside off, and letting the seam do the rest. Asif was especially dangerous, getting the ball to both hold its line and dart back in.
During that testing period, both Taylor and Guptill played out of their skins. Taylor kept getting beaten outside off with Asif getting it to seam either way. Thrice he took his eyes off Aamer's deliveries, and took body blows. When Gul bowled seven consecutive maidens, he hardly scored; his score read 2 off 29 and 6 off 44 at two different stages of the innings.
Guptill, too, had to get used to not getting anything to drive, and with the third-man gap plugged, scoring became an afterthought. Gul drew Guptill forward on the defence, and then, suddenly, mixed in the shorter ones. One such short delivery that seamed away a touch got the edge but Imran Farhat dropped it at first slip. Five runs later, it was Gul doing the dropping: at the fine-leg boundary, a top-edge off Aamer, and Guptill had survived twice on 26.
After those two lives, both Taylor and Guptill opened up, and simultaneously Pakistan relaxed a bit. Taylor punched well off the back foot, and Guptill got the driving length too. Post lunch, Yousuf didn't get the seamers to work in tandem. Saeed Ajmal bowled 13 straight overs in the second session. Given that there wasn't much wind, the move seemed a bit inexplicable. But Ajmal would go on and get the most important wicket of the day.
Before that, though, Taylor overtook Guptill at the 50-mark. Unlike Guptill, Taylor managed to play forcing shots off the back foot, and during one period of acceleration that included a slog-swept six, he went from 19 off 74 to 51 off 97. Things would have been rosier for New Zealand had Aamer not struck in the first over of his third spell. He first hit Taylor on the back of the head, then got Guptill to top-edge another.
Taylor had reached 64 then, and looked good to go by his conversion rate (five fifties and four hundreds before this). This time, though, in his 90s, Taylor got edgy and went to drive Ajmal against the spin, far from his body and edged to first slip - six short of his century. With the ball soft, and the pitch eased out, both the batsmen missed out on a real chance to dominate the bowling.
It was the best possible time for Peter Fulton and Grant Elliot to start their innings; they survived nine-odd overs before Asif turned the day again. In two overs he removed them both, the length being crucial again. Both batsmen were kept on the crease: Fulton got one that stayed a touch low, Elliott one that moved in, made him play uncertainly, and took the edge.
Time, then, for Pakistan's hallowed fielding to raise its head: Farhat - still in the slips - dropped a tough chance from Vettori when the latter hadn't even scored. McCullum and Vettori went from strength to strength, and batted New Zealand through to stumps, having added unbeaten 65 for the seventh wicket. Just in case there wasn't enough drama already, the review system proved Simon Taufel wrong. The penultimate ball of the day was a sharp offcutter from Asif, an appeal that was upheld. McCullum challenged it, and was seen being hit outside the line of off.
Shorter tours don't allow you time to get into form, and domestic cricket isn't demanding enough