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Pakistan plan for speed, but play with lethargy

Pakistan's troubles in the field allowed New Zealand to post a sizeable first-innings score Getty Images

Everything about Sami Aslam was slow. He was slow to pick up the ball off Jeet Raval's edge, and slow to move to his right. His hands closed like the gates of a warehouse in an action movie - the ball screeching through like the hero on a motorbike. After it had made its triumphant escape, Aslam rose in increments; unsticking each of his limbs from the ground. Slow is not what Pakistan wanted from this innings. It is not what they needed from this Test.

When a side picks four fast bowlers, they want the game to go quickly. Not for this particular attack is "staying patient on a fifth stump line" or "tying batsmen down" with diligent lengths. Bowling dry works when a high-quality spinner plays, because on his best days, Yasir Shah can wall batsmen in for hours and hours, until the pitch is sufficiently dry that with a flick of his hair and a snap of fingertips, he can send entire batting orders cascading.

But this is not the strategy Pakistan opted for. In their dream sequence for this match, Pakistan won the toss, bowled first, had Mohammad Amir get more nicks than a first-time shaver, had their two honest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Khans shoot balls between bat and pad, then - preferably after a New Zealand batsman provoked Wahab Riaz - had Wahab send them sarcastic flying kisses, his deliveries at their grilles, and pieces of protective equipment into the stumps. The whole thing would be done in 40 overs. A demoralised New Zealand would have no more than 200 on the board.

On Friday, Amir had bowled a first over deserving of the Pakistan fantasy. He was in the New Zealand openers' heads straight away. He pitched deliveries on lines they had to play at. He shimmied the ball away. He drew four edges with six balls, and nearly grazed off stump with one. Yet Amir came away with only one wicket in the opening over when he should have had at least two. Aslam had been the culprit then as well, trying to trap the ball with wrists instead of palms, and fending it away onto a quivering boot. Raval went on to make New Zealand's highest score of 55, dropped on 0 and then 40. Amir was quivering himself. Maybe he wondered after a season of dropped catches off his bowling, if the universe would ever forgive him; if it would let him have the hauls his skill deserved.

The drops stung because unlike in the UAE, where games pick up speed like a boulder coming down a hill, matches on green-tops come roaring out of the gates. The more quickly attacks can get through the top three, the more chance a middle order can be exposed, and the tail shot out. If the ball still had its gloss when Henry Nicholls (in his ninth Test) or Colin de Grandhomme (in his second) had come to the crease, chances of them lasting more than fifty balls apiece would have been slim. With every over bowled, the seam became a little less pronounced, and the surface grew a little less damp. Where a clinical catching side might have built enough pressure to spark a collapse, Pakistan saw New Zealand's tail get quick runs. It was only later that they paid for failing to knock over one of the early dominoes.

"Yes, they shouldn't have got 270 on that pitch," Sohail Khan, the most successful of Pakistan's seamers, said. "Even though the ball was a bit damp on the first day, which prevented us from using it as well as we could have, we still won the toss. The score they got was a bit on the high side on that pitch."

When Pakistan took guard, New Zealand's quicks showed the pressure early wickets can impart. Raval held a low chance from Aslam's bat, and when Azhar Ali was also caught behind, an out-of-sorts Younis Khan was drawn out of the dressing room. By the end of the day 8 for 2 had turned into 76 for 5 - a huge first-innings deficit likely, unless the two overnight batsmen can defy New Zealand on the third morning.

"If we get one good partnership, we can take the score very close - Babar Azam and Sarfraz Ahmed are still there," Sohail said. "When we bowl again, this game is more like an attacking one now, and we could still finish it in a session."

For the second time in as many Tests, Pakistan are faced with a difficult route back into the match. Had they done Amir's spell justice, they might even have had the game by its collar by now.