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December 5, 2009
Two reasons emerged from the Basin Reserve for Test cricket to live long and live fruitful. Mohammad Yousuf first reminded us, in this age of Virender Sehwag and Tillakaratne Dilshan, that there was once another way to bat in Test cricket, his patient, educated 83 enabling Pakistan to set New Zealand 405 for victory. And when the chase began, the genius of Mohammad Asif torpedoed it, in a typically cunning and persevering ten-over new-ball spell of Test virtues. At the end of it all, Pakistan stood on the brink of their first Test win in 12 matches and nearly three years, New Zealand staggering at 70 for 3.
The fall of 11 wickets in prime conditions suggests another day of mediocre batting, hurtling the Test towards a swift conclusion. Perhaps it was, as Grant Elliott sparked a Pakistan collapse that saw them go from 197 for 3 to 239 all out and the New Zealand top order was ruthlessly shred apart by Asif. But for nearly two full sessions, it was also an opportunity to see some old school Test batting, from the one solid rock in Pakistan's order, possibly on either side.
Questions will always be there about Yousuf's leadership, but for over four hours he led Pakistan as best he can: with bat in hand. The decision to send Umar in at No. 3 in the first innings was abominable, but atonement was at hand as the captain, fittingly, walked in at one-drop at a sketchy time yesterday evening. Whenever he faced, calm descended over proceedings, where elsewhere there was helter-skelter.
The morning session was of a kind Pakistan can really do more with, if only for the element of serenity Yousuf's batting instills into an easily-panicked batting order. Pace and spin was hurled at him and he remained unmoved. He was tested early morning by a fairly spirited and energetic assault on his body and head, particularly by Daryl Tuffey. Occasionally he was hurried but mostly he repelled the attack in much the manner an elephant might swat away flies around him; in any case New Zealand might have prospered from fuller lengths. By the time he was expertly riding the bounce and guiding Tuffey through gully, he had won the first battle.
Daniel Vettori immediately settled into bowling maidens like he was Errol Flynn but Yousuf was unrushed, biding his time. A run of four scoreless overs was broken by a fine sweep for two, a skipped beat essentially, in the normal tempo of things. Misbah-ul-Haq was a sturdy foil, as laidback and content to build run by run, minute by minute. Gradually, over the course of a sleepy hour and a half, he established a nice rhythm, picking off runs adroitly.
The real beauty of Yousuf shone through, however, after Misbah's dismissal and the arrival of the young, fearless and very modern Umar. He watched idly as Umar played a game different to the batsmen around him. In a blaze of daring, he stamped himself all over New Zealand and in the half hour to lunch, a traditional preserve of caution, he twice smote Vettori for massive sixes, cutting and pulling him for afters. Yousuf reached a sedate fifty in the over before lunch, by which time Umar was already on 39 and Test match batting, in all its wonderful shades, was in full bloom.
Soon after lunch, Umar was treating the whole thing like a net session, swinging away at Chris Martin like a scorned wife and bringing up his fifty off 32 balls. Impetuosity got him immediately after, panic crept into Pakistan and breathed life into New Zealand. And as wickets began to fall, Yousuf continued to navigate a way through, picking up only three boundaries in the afternoon session. Elliott was thrown into the mix by Vettori and Shoaib Malik and Kamran Akmal, in successive balls, believed him to be Glenn McGrath; for the former there may not be many more chances. Where Elliott went, others followed taking cue from his fuller lengths. Martin benefitted the most and with new ball in hand, finally trapped Yousuf, ending four hours of solitude. Iain O'Brien, the pick of the bowling, wrapped it up, and four wickets a just reward for bowling more intelligent lengths.
Chasing 405, instead of 500-plus, seemed to buoy up New Zealand, to such an extent that their openers even lasted the entire first over. Not the second, however; bluntly put, Asif has worked over better batsmen than New Zealand's top order. He was over them like a rash from the very start, working his way methodically through their chinks, with changes in length and the usual minimal cut, shining as brightly as the afternoon sun. Had Yousuf not dropped an absolute sitter to reward a fierce, fast spell from Umar Gul and Misbah not done likewise off Danish Kaneria, New Zealand would've been in greater strife; some old-school traits are clearly better than others.