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Match Analysis

Pakistan retreat into the comfort zone of self-preservation

Ashraf and Rizwan discarded the dated and conservative batting strategy that prevailed before their partnership

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
If you're in Pakistan and found yourself needing something to keep you going before the third day of the Test started at 3am local time, you might have tuned in to the late-night English Premier League game. Sit back, watch the Wolves take on Tottenham Hotspur for a couple of hours, switch over to the cricket.
What you'd end up watching was a dire, stodgy performance, one dominated by the belief that the avoidance of errors was the central purpose of playing sport. The spectacle be damned, the result in the end is all that mattered. With that philosophy hard-wired into Tottenham Hotspur manager Jose Mourinho's mind, his side got an early goal, and sat so far back they might as well have been reclining. They didn't have a shot on goal for the last 75 minutes of the game, and late on, the Wolves, who had been piling on the pressure, finally broke through and got a 1-1 draw. Social media was ablaze with the fury of Tottenham fans. Turns out if you're going to play like that, you really better get a result out of it.
But if you had somehow stayed awake and assumed you had watched your fair share of attritional sport, boy did Pakistan have a treat in store. They had begun the day having tiptoed to 30 off 20 overs, though, you might have excused them that because they could have been trying to see the day out on Sunday. But in bright sunshine under blue skies at the start of day three, Abid Ali and Mohammad Abbas began to see out days three, four and five.
If there's another way to interpret Pakistan's strategy on Monday, it'll need someone from Pakistan to spell it out in unredacted detail. Some may argue New Zealand began similarly cautiously, but the comparison is uneven enough to be disingenuous. For one, Kane Williamson's side was sharp enough to immediately pounce the moment a Pakistan bowler missed their mark; Naseem Shah's first three overs, delivered after a masterfully disciplined spell from Shaheen Afridi and Abbas, went for 21 runs as Williamson and Ross Taylor realised they had found an outlet to relieve the pressure. It put the onus on Pakistan's relatively inexperienced bowling attack to maintain what were unsustainably high levels of accuracy, patience and discipline. When those standards invariably began to fall away in the third session, the scoring began to trend upwards.
Of course, Pakistan don't have a batsman in their XI to match the quality of Williamson or Taylor, but if anything, that was even more of a reason the manner Pakistan approached their innings was doomed to fail. Trent Boult, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson operating in tandem is possibly the most lethal bowling attack in home conditions around. The first three of those each have more wickets than Pakistan's entire pace contingent currently in New Zealand. In short, batsmen tend not to survive against them for too long.
From that singular point of view, Pakistan didn't do quite as disastrously as the match situation seems to have condemned them to. New Zealand couldn't burst through the batsmen in quick succession, wickets didn't fall in clusters. Abid survived over 100 balls, and the shortest stay at the crease was Haris Sohail's - 22 balls. Even Abbas stuck around for 55 balls. Every batsman got their eye in, all of them managed starts.
These, however, are world-class bowlers, an adjective that can't quite be used to describe most of the batsmen they were bowling to. With Pakistan content to survive with disregard for a scoreboard that simply wasn't ticking over, New Zealand were equally content to hold their lines and wait for the concentration lapses.
Jamieson conceded four runs across the first two sessions in the eleven overs he bowled. He still picked up two wickets; simply shutting up shop doesn't guarantee you'll keep this New Zealand attack out. His spell was emblematic of a New Zealand side on cruise control, while Pakistan might have been chugging along in first gear in a bad neighbourhood. Eventually, you end up getting mugged.
And thus when the wickets did come, each batsman had spent time out in the middle without making much of an impression on the scoreboard. Pakistan brought up the hundred in the 66th over; this is the slowest a side has reached that milestone in New Zealand since ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data has records for. It is the seventh-slowest by any side anywhere; the half-dozen slower all came in second innings efforts, presumably as sides looked to grind out draws.
It might not have been as damaging a day if the optics weren't quite so uncomfortable. Pakistan's head coach Misbah-ul-Haq is about as famous for positive cricket as comic book fans are for weightlifting. And in response to a side as unapologetically forward-thinking as New Zealand, his side - and this side has been his for a while now - retreated into the comfort zone of self-preservation. No batsman wanted to make a mistake, no one fancied being the scapegoat. Ironically, with no one among the players shouldering the blame, the spotlight inevitably shifts upstairs: to Misbah and batting coach Younis Khan themselves.
This approach to cricket is barely acceptable, as Tottenham fans will tell you. If a side grinds out wins but away from home, Pakistan have not won a Test match since Misbah took over, and on the evidence of today's performance with the bat, it doesn't exactly appear as if there's an abundance of ideas on how to turn that around. This will be the tenth successive away Test without a victory; the last time Pakistan suffered a drier run on the road came in the 1980s.
When Fawad Alam, who had scratched together nine runs in 41 deliveries at the crease, lost his patience and hoicked at one down the leg side that he legitimately should have left alone, Faheem Ashraf strode out to the middle. Pakistan had managed just four boundaries all day until then, and Ashraf felt there was little point to staying out there if he wasn't going to get a move on. Off his eighth ball, he rocked back and smacked Wagner in front of square for four. Soon after, he hit Jamieson, who had gone for nine in 17 overs, for eight runs in two balls.
The New Zealand quick realised he'd have to change things up, and he fed Mohammad Rizwan one that was short and wide. By now, the Pakistan captain had joined in on the act, and slashed him away for four. Two balls later, Jamieson's frustrations got the better of him, and he collected a drive back from Ashraf and hurled it back at the batsman. Cruise control suddenly wasn't working anymore. Pakistan doubled their 60-over score in 20 overs, and Rizwan and Ashraf both brought up half-centuries.
It might be tempting to let the sugar rush of that seventh-wicket partnership overwhelm Pakistan supporters into believing their plan for the day held some sort of merit. That, however, will be the sleep-deprivation talking. Pakistan might lose this match because of the way they approached it, but lose it slightly less comprehensively because Ashraf and Rizwan recognised that dated, conservative strategy for the trap that it was, and discarded it summarily with the contempt it deserved.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000