2nd Test, Day 1: Naseem Shah and Salman Ali Agha strike after strong top-order display

New Zealand were sitting pretty at 234/1 but the Pakistan duo combined for 5 wickets to limit the visitors to 309/6.

In seven home Test matches in 2022, Pakistan had gone winless, with three drawn encounters and four losses. As the new year dawned upon a team in crisis, the men in green aimed to kick off 2023 on a winning note, to try and turn their fortunes around in their final Test of the current cycle of the World Test Championship.

As suggested by Chief Selector Shahid Khan Afridi during the previous Test – who, by the looks of it, has seemed to take up a far more hands-on role than the one his title encompasses – the pitch for the second Test would be different than the surfaces preceding it. A tinge of grass on the track on the morning of Day 1 indicated that the fast bowlers would have some sort of assistance, at least in the morning session.

Given the greenish top, Pakistan had drafted in experienced right-arm seamer Hassan Ali for Mohammad Wasim Jr, while injury-returnee Naseem Shah replaced Nauman Ali’s left-arm spin, with the home side opting for three seam-bowling options. New Zealand had made one change, too, as Matt Henry was brought in to partner Tim Southee in the pace-bowling department, ahead of Neil Wagner, who had failed to impress in the first Test.

The Black Caps won the toss and elected to bat, as the apparent variation in the pitch did not impact Tim Southee’s decision-making – the skipper backing his batters to negate any early movement off the surface in the morning session.

New Zealand’s openers threw some weight behind their captain’s call as both Devon Conway and Tom Latham unleashed their drives, flicks, and cuts against both Mir Hamza and Naseem Shah, fetching multiple boundaries after three quiet overs. Hence, the pressure was imposed on Pakistan’s bowlers from the get-go, as the Karachi track did not seem to possess any demons as its appearance had earlier suggested.

Changes in bowling did not bear any fruit for Pakistan either, as Hassan Ali and Abrar Ahmed too were carted to all corners of the ground by New Zealand’s opening pair, with Conway using his feet to mow Abrar across the line for six over mid-on, to bring up the team fifty in just the eleventh over.

Latham and Conway continued to display their impeccable range throughout the morning session, as Pakistan’s bowlers failed to force a breakthrough, with Mir Hamza coming close on a few occasions, only for DRS to rule two leg before wicket decisions against the left-arm pacer. As a result, the visitors had piled on 119 runs for no loss by lunchtime, at a brisk run rate of 3.96, with both openers reaching their individual half-centuries in the process.

Naseem Shah broke the opening partnership at the start of the afternoon session, wrapping Tom Latham on his pads adjacent to the stumps to send the left-handed batter packing for a 100-ball 71 as the Kiwis lost their first wicket for a score of 134.

Double centurion from the previous game, Kane Williamson joined Devon Conway at the crease as the latter continued to use his feet vs. Abrar Ahmed, peppering the bespectacled leggie for boundaries on the regular. Kane, too, found himself amongst the boundaries shortly after, bringing his off-side play to the fore against both pace and spin.

New Zealand’s plan of taking Abrar to the cleaners was yielding dividends, with the 24-year-old mystery spinner feeling the heat, perhaps for the first time in his young Test career. Pakistan’s fielding did not help their cause either, as Abdullah Shafique was perhaps a touch too deep at slip, seeing a Devon Conway catch fall short, with Saud Shakeel following suit after a tough chance at gully when the left-handed opener was on scores of 86 and 89, respectively.

These scenes seemed all too familiar to Pakistan supporters with respect to how this bumper home season had panned out for the men in green up until this point – lathered with disappointment and missed opportunities. In fact, the one bowler who had managed to provide Pakistan with some respite every now and then in Abrar Ahmed was also being pummeled by the opposition batters on this particular instance.

A Devon Conway flick off Mir Hamza for three runs brought up New Zealand’s 200, and also his fourth Test ton in just his 12th game; his first in Asia and also the first Test century of the year 2023. On the very next delivery, Hamza was steered to the third-man fence by Kane Williamson in trademark fashion as the runs continued to flow for the visitors, who at this point threatened to once again chart a mammoth total in Karachi.

In comparison to their first innings of the first Test, New Zealand’s batters had opened their shoulders far more regularly on Day 1 of the second Test, with the run rate hovering close to four runs per over throughout the first two sessions and the boundary rope being disturbed on a more frequent basis. Therefore it was no surprise that at Tea, the visitors had racked up 226 runs, having lost just 1 wicket – in firm control of proceedings.

The final session started with another almost-identical little anecdote to the first Test, as Kane Williamson edged a Naseem Shah delivery to keeper Sarfaraz, with not a single Pakistani player appealing in response. Luckily for the home team, a wicket was just around the corner, as Devon Conway nicked a Salman Ali Agha delivery soon after, caught behind for a well-crafted 122, handing the part-time off-spinner his second wicket of the home season.

Henry Nicholls was the new man at the crease, who paddled Salman for a four down fine leg on just his second delivery to get off the mark in his 50th Test. Luckily for him, he was on the other end during Naseem Shah’s fiery spell, as the tearaway teenager sent Kane Williamson packing for a score of 36, courtesy of a reverse-swinging ripper, brilliantly snaffled by Sarfaraz Ahmed, low to his right, in front of first slip.

One wicket had brought two, as is so often the case in cricket – Naseem Shah with his tail up, showing some aggression by staring down at newcomer Daryl Mitchell. Salman Ali Agha at the other end, however, was failing to maintain the same sort of pressure, bowling short and wide on occasion – rightfully punished by Henry Nicholls for four through point. Two new batters occupied the crease, and Pakistan could ill-afford to allow them to get set in an attempt to wrest back some control on Day 1.

Henry Nicholls continued to take his chances on the off-side, poking and slashing at deliveries that could very well be left, presenting Pakistan’s bowlers with wicket-taking opportunities and scoring valuable runs for New Zealand at the same time. The Kiwis successfully negotiated a red-hot Naseem but squandered the opportunity to make the most of Salman’s off-spin, with the Lahore-born batting all-rounder bowling Daryl Mitchell through the gate for a score of just 3.

New Zealand had lost three wickets in the space of 21 runs post Tea, as the bowlers had finally started to pose some questions of the touring side. The ball had started to reverse as well for Hassan Ali, who could consider himself extremely unlucky not to feature in the wickets column, consistently finding the outside edge of batters for no reward, with both Conway chances coming off of his bowling earlier in the day.

Eight overs went by without a single boundary before Tom Blundell skipped down the track to drill Salman Agha for a four down the ground to release some pressure. Just when Pakistan fans had started to fear that the home team was losing its advantage in the final session, Salman drew the thinnest of edges off the bat of Henry Nicholls – a decision sent upstairs via DRS, courtesy of captain Babar Azam himself at slip. UltraEdge confirmed a tiny spike, and Nicholls was on his way back to the pavilion for a score of 26, with Salman Agha successfully striking for a third time in the innings.

Pakistan were sensing a collapse, and just three deliveries later, Abrar Ahmed claimed his first wicket of the Test, striking Michael Bracewell’s front pad plumb in front of the stumps to send the off-spinning all-rounder back in the hut without troubling the scorers. Pakistan had now accounted for five New Zealand wickets for just 53 runs in the final session, as the innings took a 180-degree shift in terms of momentum.

Pakistan took the new ball in the 83rd over but failed to penetrate with it, as Day 1 came to a close with the Black Caps slightly ahead in the game, standing at 309 runs for the loss of 6 wickets. Things could change quickly on the morning of Day 2, as an early collapse could see Pakistan edge ahead in the Test – something which was very much likely, given Naseem Shah would have had some much-needed rest in his legs by then.

Perhaps for the first time in a month of Test cricket at home, Pakistan fans could feel slightly optimistic about their chances with respect to securing victory, which was, of course, a long distance away, as things stood. The hosts would want to clean the visitors up as early as possible on Day 2 in a bid to ideally bat big, bat once, and effectively bat New Zealand out of the Test match.

The previous sentence can be considered rather wishful, given Pakistan’s fortunes in the longest format of late. One can still dare to dream, however.