2nd Test, Day 3: Saud Shakeel's maiden Test hundred leads Pakistan's fighting effort

The Sindh skipper finished the day on a patient 124* with the hosts 407/9, still trailing by 42 runs.

The Wednesday sun shined bright on the National Bank Cricket Arena in Karachi as Day 3 of the second Test of New Zealand’s first Test Series on Pakistani shores in two decades was set to commence, with the home team lagging behind considerably, hoping to overturn a deficit of 295 runs, with seven wickets in hand.

New Zealand’s record last wicket partnership of 104 runs, along with Babar Azam’s comical run-out, dominated the headlines on Day 2, as Imam-ul-Haq and Saud Shakeel remained resolute on the crease, batting on overnight scores of 74 and 13, respectively. Imam was the man in form for the home side, inching closer to a fourth Test ton, with the added responsibility of leading Pakistan’s response, given he had played a major role in running out his captain.

The left-handed opener kicked off Day 3 on a positive note, slashing Matt Henry off the back foot through the point region for four on the very first delivery of proceedings to begin the day on a rather stylish note. Saud followed suit soon after, cutting Michael Bracewell late to fetch his first boundary of the day and get Pakistan up and running, with a gargantuan task ahead of them still.

The hosts had to aim to bat out the day in its entirety if they were to potentially post a first innings lead on New Zealand, without which their chances of victory remained minimal. Saud brought out his paddle sweep vs. Bracewell’s off-spin to yield four more runs to the total, as the left-handed batting pair negotiated the first half hour with much success, inspiring some confidence in a rather dejected Pakistani fan base.

The sweep shot has been a release shot for Pakistani batters against spin, particularly in Asia, in years gone by – a shot that, barring a few players in the side, is not heavily used by contemporary Pakistani Test batters. Saud Shakeel is one of those technicians who possess the mastery to play the shot, which he brought to the four by creaming an Ish Sodhi half-volley to the fence quite exquisitely.

It was all smooth sailing for Pakistan until Tim Southee sent a caught behind appeal off his own bowling upstairs by using one of his two remaining reviews, which confirmed a thin spike on UltraEdge, resulting in Imam-ul-Haq losing his wicket for 83 runs, under-edging a short and wide delivery to wicketkeeper Tom Blundell.

Pakistan were four down for 182, still trailing New Zealand by a colossal 267 runs, having lost all four of those wickets to deliveries that did not warrant them. From failing to put away loose deliveries to falling to short ball traps and, above all else, throwing away wickets via hysterical run-outs, the home team only had themselves to blame for their first innings’ batting woes.

After a quiet period of consolidation, Saud Shakeel broke the shackles by slog-sweeping Ish Sodhi toward cow corner to alleviate some pressure off of a batting side that found itself under the scanner for all the wrong reasons. A sweetly timed cover drive for four off Tim Southee’s bowling by his fellow Karachiite teammate Sarfaraz Ahmed helped Pakistan cross the 200 mark, drawing cheers from the few people in the stands who had made an effort to watch their team play in the flesh.

Sarfaraz continued with his positive intent as he punished an Ish Sodhi full toss towards the midwicket fence to keep the scoreboard ticking for the men in green, adding a few more boundaries off the leg spinner’s bowling in the morning session, a streaky prod down the third man region, and a commanding cut through point.

Pakistan’s former captain successfully saw his team through to the lunch break, in the sound company of Saud Shakeel, with Pakistan still trailing New Zealand by a sizeable 225 runs, having six wickets remaining in the bank – the next two sessions being critical with respect to the fate of Babar Azam’s under-fire unit, in what had been an extremely underwhelming winter of Test cricket.

Pakistan kicked off the afternoon session with a Saud Shakeel sweep for four off Ish Sodhi’s leg spin, which allowed him to record his sixth half-century on the very next delivery in just his ninth innings in the longest format. While it had been a prolific start to the Karachi southpaw’s Test career, a hundred had still evaded him, therefore adding more onus on his dogged shoulders to go on and chart that elusive summit in this innings, that too on his home ground.

A flurry of boundaries off Sarfaraz Ahmed’s bat followed as he successfully attempted back-to-back sweeps vs. Ajaz Patel, firmly connecting on the first instance, and ballooning one over the keeper on the second, with a crisply timed back foot punch off Sodhi through mid-on capping off a brisk run of play, taking the wicketkeeper-batter’s score into the forties.

Saud Shakeel, too, had grown in confidence after crossing fifty as he danced down the track to deposit Ajaz Patel over his head for a belligerent four. Things had finally started to look on the up for the hosts, as Tim Southee opted to take the new ball as soon as it was available at the 80-over mark.

Shortly after, Sarfaraz Ahmed reached his third fifty on the bounce since his return to the Test XI – all three efforts coming at times when the home team found itself under the pump, therefore being extremely crucial towards Pakistan’s cause.

New Zealand’s turners had been quite ineffective on Day 3 and, to their detriment, were up against a batting pair that was extremely proficient at playing spin bowling. Therefore, it was no surprise when Saud Shakeel drilled a full and wide delivery by Michael Bracewell for a thunderous four through deep extra cover.

The off-spinning allrounder did draw Shakeel’s top edge a few overs later, however, only for it to plop over the slip fielder’s head for another four, which took the Saud-Sarfaraz partnership north of 100 runs. And so, there was no change to the order of the day.

The runs continued to flow for Karachi’s most prized batting pair as Saud Shakeel dispatched Ajaz Patel for boundaries off successive deliveries, solidly sweeping the left-arm spinner with the turn before elegantly wafting him away down to the midwicket fence, displaying impeccable footwork, in what was perhaps the shot of Day 3.

Sarfaraz showed no signs of stopping either, repeating the sequence vs. Patel shortly after, bringing out the cut and sweep to bag consecutive fours, with Saud ending the over on a streaky note, edging one past the slip fielder, to complete a 13-run over for the home side.

Another sweep for four took Saud Shakeel to 99, who ran hard for a quick single on the next delivery to finally convert his fifty into three figures for the first time in six attempts. It was a moment to savor for the hometown hero, who was perhaps Pakistan’s find of the home season, even ahead of Abrar Ahmed. His consistency with the bat was worth all the praise, and his maiden ton had effectively saved Pakistan from a fair few blushes and heaps of embarrassment. Saud had announced to the world that he was here to stay.

Two deliveries later, Sarfaraz belted Michael Bracewell over his head for four in what would turn out to be his final boundary of the innings – one that was cut short rather controversially. The 35-year-old glovesman survived a leg before wicket shout off Daryl Mitchell’s first delivery of the Test, having been adjudged out by Alex Wharf, only for DRS to overturn the decision courtesy of some clear disturbance on UltraEdge, after which a stumping down leg side two deliveries later saw the back of the half centurion, dismissed for 78.

The decision sparked a furor in the press box, as it seemed as if Sarfaraz’s spikes were firmly grounded behind the popping crease – a decision that will polarize opinion amongst the masses, more so in favor of the batter, with the third umpire Ahsan Raza surely set to cop a fair bit of criticism. While many would claim that Sarfaraz Ahmed had effectively been robbed of what would have been his first Test hundred in Pakistan, the umpire’s decision is what matters in cricket, which in this case, had resulted in the home team losing half their side with 332 runs on board.

Salman Ali Agha managed to get off the mark on the final ball before Tea, carving Ish Sodhi for a tasteful four over the point fielder to end the afternoon session with Pakistan standing at a score of 337 runs for the loss of five wickets – still 112 behind New Zealand’s first innings total.

There is a certain flamboyance about the way Salman goes about his batting, which he once again displayed at the start of the final session, driving Daryl Mitchell between point and cover to find the fence in an aesthetically pleasing manner – the only boundary scored by Pakistan in the hour after the Tea break, as they crawled towards a score of 350, thereby reducing the deficit to double digits.

A chance had also gone begging for New Zealand in the meantime, as Tom Latham fluffed the easiest of catches at point off his captain’s bowling, that too of centurion Saud Shakeel, when the compact middle order batter was on a score of 102. Salman added insult to Southee’s injury, guiding him past the gully fielder for four, playing the delivery extremely late – a shot that the great Inzamam-ul-Haq would be proud of.

Salman’s languid off-side play continued, this time vs. Sodhi, as he used his feet to convert a full-length delivery into a full toss, whisking it away past the cover fielder for his third boundary of the day.

Pakistan’s run rate had considerably slowed down post Tea as Saud and Salman looked to buy time at the crease in a bid to see their team through to stumps. Salman finally managed to cultivate a boundary after a gap of seven long overs, slapping Sodhi through the covers, followed by another four on the final delivery of the over, this time driving the leg spinner to the long-on fence.

Salman’s glimpses of intent saw him score one more boundary as he stepped out of the crease to crash Ajaz Patel up and over the cover region, only to edge one to slip on the very next delivery, as Bracewell held on to a screamer to dismiss the batting allrounder for a well-constructed innings of 41.

Pakistan had lost their sixth wicket, still trailing New Zealand by 64 runs, as hard-hitter Hassan Ali walked out to the middle with the promise of some fireworks before the end of the day’s play. It was Saud, however, who took on the bowling before Hassan, finally managing to score a boundary in the final session, courtesy of an attractive heave off Daryl Mitchel on the off-side.

As expected of Hassan Ali, a slog for four against Ajaz Patel saw him get off the mark, with the mad max caught in the deep on the next delivery, snapped up by Devon Conway brilliantly in the deep on his second attempt. The floodlights were on at this point, as the light was fading fast in Karachi, with Pakistan’s team score nearing 400.

Before stumps were called, New Zealand went on to grass their second opportunity of the day – Tom Latham the culprit once again, making a mess of a simple catch at silly mid-off, which would have seen newcomer Naseem Shah depart for a duck.

The fiery teenager who loves to play his shots bludgeoned Ish Sodhi for a four over mid-on, making it seem like he would make the Black Caps pay for their blunder in the field. The Ludhiana-born leg spinner had different plans, however, as he hit the timber on successive deliveries to send both Naseem Shah and Mir Hamza back to the pavilion, finding himself on a hattrick, which was denied to him by Abrar Ahmed.

Saud Shakeel provided some entertainment to the limited Karachi crowd, with back-to-back fours vs. Ajaz Patel, both of which were rather agricultural in nature, mowing the left-arm spinner down the ground before pulling him off the back foot.

As stumps were finally called, Pakistan had successfully survived all of Day 3, albeit with just one wicket remaining in their kitty. That said, it had been a commendable fightback by the home team, as the chances of defeat were minimized significantly, with Karachi’s very own products paying dividends with the bat.

As a result, the Test now hangs in the balance, with Pakistan trailing New Zealand by just 42 runs – a deficit that will not threaten the home side a great deal. A draw seems imminent at this point, but only a fool would underestimate the wonders of sport, particularly cricket.