Zimbabwe batsmen balance aggression with patience
The first ball Malcolm Waller faced was a standard Saeed Ajmal offbreak. It turned, but not so much that he was surprised by it. In fact, Waller seemed perfectly prepared.
Waller moved to the ball, as though he had waited for it the whole day. He drove it through the covers with the placement and timing of someone who had replayed doing that in their mind multiple times. It pierced the gap and sailed to the boundary as though traveling on a silk sheet while Waller admired it from the crease. There weren't many others at the ground but those who were would have agreed: that was a superb stroke.
Zimbabwean batsmen have been known to bring out similar stunners in the past, some of which made an appearance in this innings. Vusi Sibanda's pull, which he managed to keep under wraps until a Rahat Ali delivery was short enough, and his off-drive were two examples. Tino Mawoyo's pushes down the ground which appear effortless as they beat the non-striker were another.
Even Hamilton Masakadza's block was beautiful because it was strong. But that shot from Waller was different. It symbolised something other than the ability to produce an eye-catching stroke on occasion. Because he did it again and again as the day went on, it illustrated progress.
Zimbabwe's batsmen have lacked staying power in the past, especially in their middle order, so to have a fourth-wicket stand worth 127 and No.4 and 5 in the batting line-up end the day as the top-scorers showed improvement. To have them handle spinners with such ease demonstrated their development even further.
Just six months ago, albeit in more spinner-friendly conditions, Shane Shillingford and Marlon Samuels reduced their batting to what can only be called the remains of an international line-up. Today, they dealt with Ajmal and Abdur Rehman with confidence and poise, enough to be able to have stacked two good days of Test cricket together.
The resistance began much earlier, when Zimbabwe's openers stood firm against an assault from Pakistan's openers. Junaid Khan and Rahat produced exceptional first spells. They both found movement - Junaid swinging it away from the right-handers and Rahat curling it in - and both kept Zimbabwe on their toes.
Mawoyo had an lbw appeal against him with the first delivery of the innings but it had pitched outside leg. Rahat cut through Sibanda with one that hit the top of the pad and went over the stumps in the second over. Every ball seemed to do something, whether it bounced or swung.
After a few tense deliveries, one of them would overpitch and runs would come. Then, it was back to the uncertainty. Sibanda had a few inner battles to fight as he contemplated whether to play the ball or not. Both had to judge the extra bounce, take a gamble on whether the swing would become too dangerous and then decide to leave or not. If they got bat on ball, then they could begin hoping there was enough time to complete a quick run.
Having not played competitive cricket for six months, it did not take too long for Mawoyo to judge one incorrectly, but the 40 minutes he spent at the crease used up time, which was important for those who followed. Masakadza did a similar thing. He demonstrated patience and temperament Zimbabwe have lacked in the recent past and began to see off the first of the spinners with Sibanda.
Rehman did not pose much of a threat. When he tossed it up, the batsmen responded but they were willing to bide their time against anything else. The same applied to Ajmal when he came on, although Masakadza gave him a sign that it was not going to be hard work for him when he launched him over the clubhouse for six in his first over.
With little assistance from the surface, Ajmal had to rely purely on his own skill. He turned a few and he remained deceptive - Masakadza was out playing for a doosra when it was in fact the offbreak - and that was where it could have gone wrong for Zimbabwe. The two old hands, Sibanda and Masakdaza were out off consecutive deliveries and the stage for a collapse was set. Waller's push for four showed Zimbabwe's intent to reverse that trend and the rest of his innings and his partnership with Sikandar Raza rubber-stamped that.
After that shot, they went 12 balls without scoring. Patience, they knew, would be important. But when Junaid went too wide or bowled a full toss, Waller punished him because some show of aggression was important too.
Finding the balance between the two was what Waller indicated was Zimbabwe's biggest challenge. "Previously when we've gone out there and maybe because we don't play a lot of Test cricket, guys are in a hurry," Waller said. "But in this match, most guys are very clear about what they need to do and they know their roles. We've got simple plans and we're trying to stick to them. We're also not as attacking as we used to be."
Waller and Raza took the risk out of their game by only playing shots they were confident of pulling off. The sweep was one of them and Waller used it at will. He was able to play it so often and so successfully, he said, because he had learned to read Ajmal, despite him remaining difficult to face. "I tried to concentrate and watch the ball as closely as I could. I found that I was playing it a lot off the pitch and not from the hand but he was tricky, as he has been most of the other times I have faced him," Waller said.
While Waller scored quickly, Raza hung on and he only quickened up once he was more comfortable. He was rewarded with a fifty on Test debut and when he was dismissed, Zimbabwe were only 37 behind the Pakistan total. So weak has their middle-order been in the recent past that even in that situation, it remained a possibility that Zimbabwe would be bowled out without passing Pakistan's score. That they managed to take a lead represented a different mindset from Zimbabwe. They need to show more such commitment to grow in the elite form of the game.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent