Pakistan grind brings no rewards

Before they took the field, Pakistan had decided this would be their day of zen.

The cricket world has sometimes thought of Pakistan as the team that either thrives or perishes in volatility; they are either inside the flaming helicopter spinning toward the ground, or the hero walking away from the explosion in slow motion. They are a Michael Bay movie or an old-school Rajnikanth flick, no depth, no nuance, no steady substance, just a series of electricifying sessions in succession; some glorious, the rest gory.

Perhaps there has never really been this Pakistan, and at least in Tests, they certainly haven't looked much like this Pakistan lately. Now they play under a captain who has, over time, moulded them in his own image. When Misbah-ul-Haq slams a 56-ball hundred or crashes spin over the infield perhaps there is a sense of the chaos that roils within him, but no one would say it is chaos that defines him; what defines him is zen.

Misbah is the man who will bat ascetically for hours and hours, and charge his partners to do the same. He is the guy who will settle into a meditative pursuit of ones and twos, and when he hits out and breaks the spell, make boundaries feel ritualistic. In the UAE, or in Sri Lanka, where Pakistan have played most under him, Misbah will ask his quicks to bowl so dry that if two spells were rubbed together a roaring fire would start.

On day three, against New Zealand, Pakistan played like the team that has been shaped by this man for six years. They played with gritted teeth, were sane, and diligent. It just so happened that on this occasion they failed to make it pay off.

Rather than deliver gladiatorial spells or swinging super-deliveries in the morning the three quicks merely set out to stick collectively to a plan. They bowled slightly shorter than they had the previous day, and had batsmen playing at more balls. Sohail Khan beat Henry Nicholls' inside edge to hit his front pad, and Jeet Raval, BJ Watling and Todd Astle were all out fending to slip.

These are not the kinds of performances that bring to mind soaring Qawwali or a verse from the Rubaiyat, but they do feature heavily in Pakistan's Test-match days - they are the grain in the bags of the caravan Misbah has led to no. 2.

With the bat, Pakistan were unwaveringly diligent. They knew they had played too many drives the previous day, so sought to cut them out. They hoped to bring Yasir Shah - their most consistent match winner - into the fray, and so tried to push the game into the final day.

Occasionally, their optimistic application calcified into inertia. Azhar Ali batted like he wanted to be the glue that held Pakistan's innings together, but found he had stuck himself to a corner instead. It took him 45 dot balls to move beyond 19. A further 24 balls were spent on 31. Sami Aslam, Babar Azam and Misbah himself all spent considerable time at the crease, but no one mustered a strike rate close to 50. The bad balls they had hoped New Zealand would eventually deliver, never showed up.

"When we sat down and assessed our batting, we spoke about how we got out and we felt we were too loose yesterday," coach Mickey Arthur said after play. "On a wicket like this you need to be hitting the ball straight and you need to make the bowlers come to you, and that opens up the leg side. Hats off to Azhar, he fought extremely hard - he just didn't get anything to score off. Credit goes to New Zealand because they bowled exceptionally well. The plan was to survive, survive, survive and pick up some balls to eventually score off, but New Zealand were relentless. We never ground them down."

Ground down instead was Pakistan's nerve. Misbah attempted to wrest momentum and was caught, hooking, at fine leg. Azhar lost his long concentration, and was bowled, off his inside edge. Two more batsmen followed soon after, and what could have been a day of steady gains became a sorry one.

But even these kinds of days have not been atypical for Pakistan. Unlike some other teams in contention for the top ranking, they aren't merely lions at home and losers outside their continent: they can be lions and losers in the same series - whipping Sri Lanka in a Galle Test one week then falling apart against a rookie spinner the next, dispatching West Indies in Abu Dhabi, before being dispatched in return, at Sharjah.

This match has almost slipped, but perhaps Pakistan will hit back in Hamilton. Maybe the hunt for the top ranking is still on. What seems clear, though, is that there will be more days like this in their southern summer. There will be more days when the defy stereotype, when they work to plans, embrace caution, and the only inspired bursts have been in backroom meetings. There will be more days of Misbah zen.