Pakistan close in on rare Aussie victory
Close Pakistan 258 (Watson 6-33) and 140 for 3 (Farhat 67, Azhar 47*) need another 40 runs to beat Australia 88 and 349 (Smith 77, Clarke 76)
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
Pakistan's quest for their first Test victory over Australia since November 1995 was firmly on track by the close of an engrossing third day of the second Test at Headingley, thanks to a 110-run stand for the second wicket between Imran Farhat and Azhar Ali that soothed the nation's brow after another day of seismic fluctuations, during which Australia's never-say-die spirit shone through at the moments when their fortunes with both bat and ball were at an absolute nadir.
After tasting defeat in each of their last 13 Tests against Australia, including the recent debacle at Sydney in which a first-innings lead of 206 proved insufficient to secure victory, Pakistan were often battling themselves as much as the 11 men in baggy greens, and it showed. First came the swishing blade of Steven Smith, whose brilliant 77 hoisted Australia's lead from 47 with four wickets standing to a defendable 180. Then came the bustling Doug Bollinger, who claimed two wickets in two overs - including the top-scorer Farhat for 67 - to inject new urgency into the day's closing overs.
Such was the anxiety in Pakistan's ranks that, when the umpires called time on the dot of 6.30pm, it was Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, who remained in the middle, hoping to be allowed to utilise the extra half-hour. It was as if he felt more confident of claiming seven wickets in that time than Pakistan's not-out batsmen, Azhar and Umar Akmal, did of knocking off the remaining 40 runs for victory.
Surely, not even Pakistan can find a way to lose from here, however, because in between their jitters, they produced enough moments of class to leave Australia's own frailties brutally exposed. First came the precocious Mohammad Aamer, whose devastating pace and late swing accounted for three wickets in the first hour, including the overnight stalwart Ponting for 66. Then later came Farhat and Azhar, who accumulated with great discipline, and waited for Australia's bowlers to feed them their runs. Shane Watson, so devastating on the second day, repeatedly drifted onto Farhat's pads, while Mitchell Johnson's sorry campaign continued with nine wicketless overs for 39.
Farhat did require a large slice of luck in his innings, however, when Watson dropped a regulation edge at first slip off Bollinger when he had made just 4. It was a costly moment so early in an uncomfortable run-chase, and though Ben Hilfenhaus soon accounted for Farhat's captain and opening partner, Salman Butt for 14, courtesy of a thick edge to second slip, too few of Australia's frontline seamers were able to locate the right lengths for the conditions. Bollinger got it right in the end, but by then, the match was surely beyond them.
The disappointment of impending defeat will not detract, however, from a remarkable coming-of-age from Australia's 21-year-old legspinning allrounder, Smith, who seized centre stage during the afternoon session with an onslaught of breathtaking audacity. While he was teeing off en route to a career-best 77 from 100 balls, the shift in belief from one dressing room to the other was as palpable as it had been on this very ground back in 1981, when Australia had themselves been on the receiving end of a memorably uncompromising onslaught from a bullish young allrounder.
While Smith has some way to go to match the feats of Ian Botham, the fearlessness and certainty of his strokeplay was straight out of the Beefster's top drawer, as he cracked nine fours and consecutive straight sixes, each one in the arc from extra cover to midwicket. It was not mindless slogging, however - far from it. Australia's situation when Smith came to the crease was too delicate for out-and-out recklessness, after Aamer's morning breakthroughs and the devastating post-lunch extraction of Michael Clarke for 76 had reduced them to 217 for 6, a lead of 47.
But with the horrors of Sydney still fresh in Pakistan's memory banks, Smith joined forces with another Test tyro, Tim Paine, to begin the long haul towards a defendable total. Paine, who had top-scored with 17 during the first-day rout, cracked Aamer through the covers twice in two overs as Pakistan dallied with semi-defensive fields in anticipation of the second new ball, while Smith telegraphed his own bubbly confidence by advancing down the track to Danish Kaneria in defence as much as attack, before finally slotting him over long-off for an agenda-setting boundary.
With the lead at 76, Paine's purposeful stay ended in flaccid circumstances, as Kaneria tossed up a rank long-hop that nevertheless turned and bounced upon pitching, for Azhar Ali to collect a toe-ended cut in the covers. Smith's response, however, belied his 21 years and one-Test experience, as he chose his shots with the expertise of a veteran, using the hardness of the new ball to gain full value for each of his full-blooded mows through the covers and midwicket.
At the other end, Johnson escaped a king pair to help add 37 priceless runs for the eighth wicket, before Asif nailed him lbw on the line of leg stump, while Hilfenhaus built on his Test-best 56 not out at Lord's to crack 17 from 16, including three fours in a single over from an over-reaching Aamer.
But it was the arrival of the No. 11 Bollinger that really showcased Smith's cricketing brain, as he farmed the strike with calm confidence to limit his colleague to nine runless deliveries in 5.4 overs, while at the same time carving 29 priceless runs from 25. Pakistan were visibly twitchy as tea was delayed to accommodate his mood-changing performance, and Umar Gul's clear reaction was one of relief when Smith finally dragged a slower ball onto his off stump with the score on 349.
Pakistan's confidence is fickle at the best of times, but they had been flushed with belief in the first hour of the day, after Aamer had produced another precocious spell of fast and aggressive swing bowling to nip Australia's second-innings revival in the bud. Overnight the Aussies had been trailing by 34 runs overnight with Clarke and Ponting well set in their third-wicket stand of 81. But it took just 16 deliveries for the vital breakthrough to be made, as Ponting slashed ambitiously at a booming outswinger from Aamer, and snicked a thin edge through to the keeper.
Buoyed by the early wicket, Aamer surged onto the offensive and added his second only two overs later, as Hussey was deceived by a cutter that gripped the turf, leapt at his gloves and ballooned tantalisingly to Umar Akmal at second slip. And he made it three in four overs when Marcus North (0) poked flat-footedly from deep in the crease to detonate his own leg stump with a fat inside-edge.
Clarke eventually brought Australia into credit in the same over that he brought up his half-century from 99 deliveries, and by lunch he had produced the most composed innings of the match to date to move to 76 not out, only for Asif to strike with his first ball after the break, a perfectly subtle outswinger that grazed the edge through to the keeper. It was a timely reminder of the gulf in class between the two sets of seamers on display in this game. And that, in the final analysis, will surely be the difference between these teams.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.