Shan Masood 2.0 cranks it up to eleven
Languid, elegant and promising, this was the batter at his trademark best..till he inevitably reached yet another glass ceiling
Pakistan will bat again this match, so this likely won't be the last Test innings Shan Masood plays, regardless of what transpires in the five months before Pakistan's next Test. That shot, that smear to backward point off a rank long hop would be an unseemly sign-off for a man feted more for his elegance than substance in a career that perpetually teeters on the edge of promise.
As a microcosm of his career, though, it was all pretty apt. It's almost ten years since Masood made his debut; In this Pakistan side, only Sarfaraz Ahmed began his Test career before Masood. With a player who's spent this long in the international spotlight, you often know what to expect, particularly in what was a fairly conventional Day 2 match situation.
With Masood, though, familiarity proves elusive, and not just because he has drifted in and out of the side with more regularity than Najam Sethi has drifted in and out of the PCB. It's also partly down to the difficulty in pinning down the essence of the foundation of his game. He has tried to evolve into something for so long it's no longer possible to say what he's evolving from. He's like the work colleague you only see from time to time but have never really known. You nod and smile when you see them, but it's been far too long to tell them you never really caught their name.
But a career average of 28 for a top-order batter does invariably demand changes to be made, and sure enough, Masood has made them. In fact, he's morphed into something else entirely. He demonstrated glimpses of it in that first innings back in his latest comeback, in that third Test against England. He used his feet against the spinners to hit them back over his head, and pulled the short ball rather than ducking under it. That 30 off 37 - appropriately brief and insubstantial - was the highest innings Test strike rate of his career at the time. The dance down the track to the spinner in the first Test, moments after he had seen Abdullah Shafique fall precisely that way, suggested a commitment to this new brand Masood had repackaged himself as.
Today, Masood cranked it up to eleven. The second ball from Matt Henry was a shade full, and Masood leaned into a drive that came off the bat's sweet spot, and zipped past mid-off for four. This was Shan at his trademark best. Languid, elegant, promising.
He could have waited for the innings to construct itself, but Masood rushed along with the alacrity of a building manager who knows planning permission may well be revoked at any moment. When Henry pitched the ball short, with three fielders in catching positions on the legside, Masood still pulled him to deep backward square for a couple. Sure, he took care doing it, but there's only so much care you can take while building on quicksand.
Ajaz Patel came on next over, and Masood's eyes lit up, greedily piling on the runs as if there were a time limit on them. Ajaz bowled four full deliveries, and Masood used his feet to each of them, looking to blast him back over his head or through off side each time. Three of those balls went for four.
"Masood has tried to evolve into something for so long it's no longer possible to say what he's evolving from. He's like the work colleague you only see from time to time but have never really known. You nod and smile when you see them, but it's been far too long to tell them you never really caught their name"
Usually, Masood deploys his bat like a master with a paintbrush, but today, he was wielding it like a child with a knife - as much a danger to himself as to everyone else. A colleague in the media from New Zealand remarked Masood looked in the mood today, before he was told that was how Masood almost always looked, but struggled to convert those starts into substance.
The retort wasn't even complete before that shot happened. Perhaps, in hindsight, it wasn't an ugly long hop, but a clever adjustment of length from Ajaz, pushing Masood onto the backfoot after four deliveries that brought him forward. But Masood was on 20 off 10, and his adrenaline was high. He saw the ball dropped short, watched it spin slowly back into him. He backed away, planted his left foot, and eyed up the area behind point he would smash it to.
Whichever way you view it doesn't especially flatter Masood. It was either poor shot selection; after three fours in the over, he could have seen off the final ball. But he wanted to take it on, and as such, it was phenomenally poor execution. The ball sliced off the face and scooped up to Devon Conway at point. It was entertaining, it was ephemeral. Strike rate? 181.81. It was yet another version of Masood, who seems to work harder than almost everyone to find a way to make his Test career work, only to find a glass ceiling at every turn.
Masood will almost certainly be back; he might yet play a fourth innings knock that guarantees it. He might not be picked for Sri Lanka in June; it's not as if selectors haven't lost faith in him after just three Test matches before. But given Masood's legendary persistence and grit, he'll keep knocking at the door, at some point or another, in some format or other. If he's sidelined for now, he'll be bid farewell, comfortable in the knowledge we'll meet him again soon. We hardly knew him, except for those precious few moments, when we suddenly knew him all too well.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000