Pakistan September 3; Even 24 hours before the toss, there had been uncertainty over whether this match would take place as Zimbabwe’s players were again threatening a boycott over delayed payments. The Test started on schedule but Zimbabwe were hamstrung as Sean Williams decided he wouldn’t play till he was paid, and their regular captain Brendan Taylor was away on paternity leave after his son was born late on Monday.
Few teams have had such major distractions to deal with, and there had been concerns about whether Zimbabwe’s players would be able to focus on the challenges of Test cricket. The home side’s bowlers, though, responded superbly to reduce Pakistan to 182 for 8, before some of the gloss was taken off by a battling ninth-wicket partnership between Saeed Ajmal and Junaid Khan.
The first hour was near perfect for Zimbabwe. The trio of Tendai Chatara, Tinashe Panyangara and Shingi Masakadza may have little Test experience and only moderate pace, but their accuracy and movement left Pakistan hobbling at 27 for 3 by drinks.
Once again, Misbah-ul-Haq walked out with his team having lost early wickets, and began more adventurously than you’d expect from him in the first session of a Test. Along with Azhar Ali, Misbah extricated Pakistan from the hole caused by the top-order’s failure. After lunch, the pitch had settled down a bit, and both Misbah and Azhar reached their half-centuries. The stand had grown to 93, and the pair was looking comfortable in the middle.
This was supposed to be the big challenge for Zimbabwe – could their bowlers keep the pressure on when the conditions eased out? They didn’t have to, as Misbah attempted one of those occasional, unpredictable big hits over the leg side and miscued to short midwicket. Prosper Utseya had even more to celebrate soon after, as Asad Shafiq also tried a wild slog and ended up inside-edging it to leg slip for 4.
Zimbabwe’s bowlers could take more credit for the wickets in the morning session. The basis of their early success was a steady line and length, constantly questioning the batsmen around off stump and getting the odd delivery to swerve around or bounce awkwardly. They posed enough of a threat to give the stand-in captain, Hamilton Masakadza, the confidence to put three slips in place for much of the first hour. Panyangara and Chatara had the ball snaking both ways, and the batsmen guessing.
Mohammad Hafeez had racked up the runs in the recent limited-overs matches, but his Test form has been suspect this year. The South Africa Tests had been a humbling experience for Hafeez, and there weren’t many runs today either as he again poked outside off, handing second slip an easy catch.
His opening partner, Khurram Manzoor, had even more at stake as he was playing his first Test in three-and-a-half years. He was cautious early on, not attempting anything flashy, and had seen off 11 overs when a big incutter from Panyangara struck him on the pads. The ball looked like it would sail over the stumps, but the umpire disagreed and Manzoor had to trudge off.
Younis Khan began his innings looking for quick singles, and he was dismissed when the ball spun back onto the stumps after an attempted forward defence. Younis had taken a couple of steps down the track after playing the delivery and could only watch the ball roll back towards the base of middle stump.
Zimbabwe were cock-a-hoop at that stage, but Misbah and Azhar slowly deflated them over the next couple of hours. The frontline trio kept testing the batsmen but the odd loose ball crept in, which Misbah profited off. He didn’t bat in a manner that has earned him the nickname tuk-tuk, but went for his strokes and he was rewarded especially towards the end of the morning session as Elton Chigumbura and Utseya offered some easy runs.
Pakistan began in a similarly confident mode after lunch and Zimbabwe’s limited attack seemed set for a struggle. Azhar had a bit of a battle through the forties, taking his time to complete the final steps of his half-century but Pakistan were slowly levelling the game. The responsibility on Azhar grew after the ordinary strokes from Misbah and Shafiq left Pakistan at 132 for 5, and he continued to bat sensibly.
Zimbabwe’s bowlers built on the advantage soon after tea, getting three quick wickets, and the innings seemed set for an early finish when Azhar nicked to the slips. Pakistan were still some way away from their previous lowest total against Zimbabwe (231), but Zimbabwe just couldn’t deliver the final blows.
Though Ajmal may not have the most orthodox technique, his merry swinging of the bat proved extremely effective late in the day. He signalled how he was going to play with a murderous straight hit over Utseya’s head early in his innings. With Junaid flailing at everything but somehow staying in the middle, the partnership began to swell. Zimbabwe turned to the new ball in search of the breakthrough but that only quickened the run-flow with Ajmal’s hook for six off Chatara among the highlights.
The home team’s frustration continued as the pair resisted for more than an hour, and it wasn’t till the final over of the day that Junaid finally edged to the keeper, after countless misses. Ajmal was still unbeaten on 49, and the stand of 67 had lent some respectability to Pakistan’s innings.