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Match Analysis

When Babar, Shafique and Rizwan made Karachi dream

A coalition of the tragics and the curious revel in the shape-shifting narrative arc of Test cricket

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Mohammad Rizwan and Nauman Ali celebrate securing a draw  •  AFP/Getty Images

Mohammad Rizwan and Nauman Ali celebrate securing a draw  •  AFP/Getty Images

The fourth day is over, the bails taken off. The players and umpires head in. It's been a one-sided Test in the extreme so far, but the first incipient signs that there might be more to this game have by now cropped up.
Australia have set Pakistan 506 to win; so many it's daft to even frame the contest in those terms. Australia have essentially given themselves two days to win their first-ever Test in Karachi. Given it took just 53 overs to get Pakistan out the first time around, the number of overs remaining, too, feels academic. But by the end of that fourth day, which began with the expectation that there would be no fifth, there are murmurs of life from a moribund Pakistan.
Babar Azam has a hundred, and Abdullah Shafique, Pakistan's new golden boy, is unflappable after surviving an early drop in the slips. The new ball has been seen off, but more importantly, so has the old, reversing ball. Pakistan have 192. They're still 314 runs away. Daft as it might be to frame it this way, in Pakistan, that's precisely what they do.
The most delicious aspect of this anachronistic cricket format now takes over: the overnight anticipation. The fans spill out of the National Stadium, the mood uplifted, the irrational hope reinvigorated. They could draw the game, a barely creditable prospect a few hours ago, but could they even win it? Doing so would upset received wisdom about Test cricket, pitch science and the record books. So of course, Pakistan's supporters go to bed thinking of little else.
The sun rises over the port city once more, as unrelenting as it has been over the past four days. It is this unseasonal heat that made many, including Babar and Pat Cummins, suspect the pitch would long have broken up and the cracks split open. With seven of 23 wickets falling to specialist spinners, it hasn't happened just yet. But as the sun bakes the square, there's time still. Lots of it.
The security checks on arrival at the stadium are thorough but by now a well-oiled machine; they take relatively less time. A man at the entrance asks with a wry smile, "So, what's going to happen today?" It's classic cricket small talk. He knows the answer is worthless, and yet there's comfort in trusting it. You can only shrug; there is no answer.
There's a madness to the belief that Pakistan can go at nearly four runs an over in the fourth innings for 90 overs. Babar and Shafique appear to recognise that, scoring just six runs in the first five overs. And yet, the people working at the game - the press pack, the commentators, the presenters, many of whom have spent decades watching this sport without ever seeing anything like it - have the idea stuck firmly in their minds.
A man at the entrance asks with a wry smile, "So, what's going to happen today?" It's classic cricket small talk. He knows the answer is worthless, and yet there's comfort in trusting it. You can only shrug; there is no answer
It's what brings the fans out to the stadium, a coalition of the tragics and the curious slowly filling up the Hanif Mohammad and Fazal Mahmood Enclosures. The Majid Khan Enclosure at square leg teems with a large group of schoolchildren. It's a brave decision from the school; they probably prioritise character-building.
Mitchell Swepson, Australia's debutant, bowls a couple of full-tosses that Babar puts away. They're not characteristic of Pakistan's shifting intentions, only indicative of the kind of day Swepson will have. They'll be the first two of 14 full-tosses, which will go for 26 runs. They would be put away in the backyard, in school or club cricket, so might as well put them away here.
There's a serenity to that first session, it feels like the eye of the storm. As Babar and Shafique bat on, the subject of the target begins to be broached. It's done tentatively initially, as you wonder whether the person next to you will engage with the idea or lose a little respect for you.
When Shafique falls, shortly before lunch, playing perhaps his first loose shot since day 1 at Rawalpindi, it's like an alarm clock going off, interrupting a pleasant dream. Reality begins to force its way into the spectators' minds, like that party guest whose unwelcome, uninvited presence has killed the mood. Just 62 runs are scored in a 28-over first session. Austerity has properly kicked in.
Pakistan braces for Australia's onslaught. Too many of the scars inflicted on Pakistan cricket's soul have come at Australian hands, and the most recent one hasn't even healed yet. Here Australia are picking away at it once more. Mitchell Starc and Cummins have been tighter than a taxman's purse all innings, and they move in for the kill against Fawad Alam, at sea against such high pace. He doesn't last long, and Babar unites with Mohammad Rizwan once more. They were accused of being a touch defensive in the T20 World Cup semi-final; it is that very trait they will need to exhibit for much of the day now.
Survival is all they can aspire to through the middle session, but post-tea, Australia begin to tire and the wickets aren't coming. They should, in all honesty, but the visitors have suddenly forgotten to catch a ball. Babar is dropped twice in two balls; Rizwan survives a close lbw shout. The prize dangles down once more, just out of reach. Pakistan need 196 for victory, 36 overs to do it in. It's as ludicrous an idea as it ever was, but the energy of the whirring brains in the stands doing run-rate and feasibility calculations could have powered the floodlights for a day-night Test.
You can't accuse the batters of leading the supporters on; they may be crowd-pleasers, but they're professional cricketers above all, and understand the line between positivity and foolhardiness. Babar punches Swepson away for four to move to 195; the crowd mistakes it for a gear-change. He is only putting a bad ball away.
And then it happens. Babar bat-pads one to short leg four shy of 200, and before the applause has properly died down, Faheem Ashraf edges to Steven Smith at slip. The final attitude adjustment has happened; what was always impossible has finally been revealed as such. Pakistan are now content to exult in the smaller pleasures: Nauman Ali's solid forward defence, Rizwan reaching his Test hundred an over before stumps. And, yes, a draw.
It's record-setting in its own right; not since the Timeless Test of 1939 has a side survived as many overs to save a game as Pakistan just did. The fans press up close against the raised barricades, yelling themselves hoarse as Rizwan and Babar embrace joyfully in front of them. They filter out into the twilight. They haven't quite got the win, but the scenic route to the draw has left them sated.
The man at the exit is different, but the wry smile is the same. "What happened today, huh?"
What could you say that the cricket hasn't already said? So you just shrug. There is, after all, no answer.

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