print icon
Match Analysis

From wildcard to senior

Khurram Manzoor looked tentative on his Pakistan comeback but, two Tests later, made a century against the No. 1 Test attack alongside a debutant opening partner

Khurram Manzoor cuts one square, Pakistan v South Africa, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 2nd day, October 15, 2013

Khurram Manzoor's footwork against spin was a feature of his first Test hundred  •  AFP

For a significant portion of Dav Whatmore's tenure as Pakistan coach, he has looked worried. Occasionally that expression becomes something less stressful and sometimes it completely disappears and is replaced by calm. Even rarer are the times when it moulds into optimism. One of those times was between Test matches in Harare.
"Khurram Manzoor, he's back and he's looking quite good," Whatmore said in casual conversation with journalists one evening. Manzoor had returned into the Pakistan side to partner Mohammad Hafeez and fix one of Pakistan's most pressing concerns. But he did not look too convincing on first sighting.
He scored 11 and 5 in the first Test, appeared uncomfortable with the angle created by Tinashe Panyangara from around the wicket and was out lbw twice. Height was a concern on both occasions but without referral technology it was difficult to know for sure. Even ignoring that, Manzoor looked tentative and even a little out of his depth.
Whatmore must have known something others did not because in the next match, Manzoor scored twin half-centuries. Hafeez departed cheaply twice. Manzoor was more settled against the quicks, more in control, especially on the drive, and used his feet well against spin. Although Pakistan suffered a surprise defeat, there was one positive to take out of it: Whatmore had found his man.
Those knocks meant that when Hafeez was dropped for this series, Manzoor went from a wildcard who was handed a comeback after being dropped following seven reasonable Tests - which included a 93 against Sri Lanka and a 77 against Australia - to the one certainty in the Pakistan opening pair. With the search on to find who would share top-two duty, Manzoor became the more experienced opener, almost overnight.
It was a responsibility he handled from the first ball when he took strike against Test cricket's top-ranked bowler. He could have been overwhelmed but he was bullish - with bat and in attitude - instead. Ten runs were scored off three deliveries in the opening over, a rarity for Dale Steyn, and an appetiser to what Manzoor and his partner, Shan Masood, went on to produce.
They put on Pakistan's best opening stand since January 2012 and gave the middle order a reprieve from their rescue-effort duties. They have also given Pakistan hope that another new combination at the top of the order could be a successful one by wearing down a lethargic South Africa attack through watchfulness and calculated aggression.
Masood said this was the third century stand they have shared in. He recalled previous occasions during a warm-up match in Pakistan and an A game in West Indies and said that explained their understanding. "He is my senior partner and I felt very comfortable with him," Masood said.
Manzoor seemed to allow Masood greater freedom earlier on, even though they scored at similar rates. While Masood took on the short ball, Manzoor was happy to get on the front foot, push forward and nudge into gaps to ensure runs accumulated.
With the milestone out of the way, Manzoor played with freedom and a surprising amount of self-expression. He seemed to laugh in the face of a frustrated Steyn by blowing him a sarcastic kiss
In that way, Pakistan were never in the slow-scoring rut they have found themselves in before and were still applying the requisite caution needed against South Africa's pace bowlers. When spin was introduced as lunch approached, Manzoor came into his own. His footwork appeared second nature as he struck JP Duminy and Robin Peterson for three fours in three deliveries, placing the ball where he wanted it to go each time.
It was a small bit of fun and Manzoor did not allow himself to be carried away by it. After the break, he was back to holding the fort. His ease in handling the short ball was a hallmark of his defence as he judged expertly when he needed to be on the back foot. When he reached fifty, it seemed a natural progression from where he left off in Harare. This time, he also showed he could convert.
Masood made what he termed a mistake in "missing a straight one" from Duminy, which trapped him on the pads. He acknowledged that he and Manzoor had exceeded expectations by the time he departed. "We wanted to try negotiate the new ball and set a good platform for the experienced and dependable middle order," he said.
The way Manzoor played afterwards illustrated his maturity. Pakistan lost two wickets for five runs and Manzoor needed to consolidate, even though he would have had his own milestone in the back of his mind. He spent 29 deliveries getting from 85 to 100, including an over from Vernon Philander where the bowler showed glimpses of the line and length that has worked so well for him in other parts of the world.
When Manzoor started to get itchy feet and thought about chasing a wide one, he immediately meted out a self-inflicted punishment. A thump on his own helmet with his bat was enough to remind him to advance cautiously. He allowed himself to let loose against Peterson, against whom it was only fitting that he brought up his century.
With the milestone out of the way, Manzoor played with freedom and a surprising amount of self-expression towards the end of the day. He seemed to laugh in the face of a frustrated Steyn by blowing him a sarcastic kiss. That kind of attitude is what's needed to overcome an attack who rely on their reputation to do some work for them because it will send a message, as Masood outlined later, saying: "We wanted it more." And Manzoor seemed to want it most.
How much more he wants could be decisive in the lead Pakistan take after the first innings. Masood suspects it will be a large amount, given the time left in the game. "We've got a guy who is batting tremendously on 131 and the captain," Masood said. "If these can two can bat for the first hour or first session, we are talking about taking the game by the scruff of the neck. The pressure is on them."
South Africa have already conceded their first century opening stand in 34 Test innings and could have another record against them broken too. Manzoor is now six runs away from overtaking Azhar Mahmood as the holder of Pakistan's highest individual score against South Africa. If you'd asked Whatmore in Harare that night whether he thought a feat like that was coming, despite all his confidence in Manzoor, he may have been hesitant to commit that much.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent