2nd Test, Day 5: Pakistan settle for draw after Sarfaraz Ahmed's epic fourth-innings century

New Zealand had reduced the hosts to 80/5 in chase of 319 before the wicket-keeper's fine comeback ton.

Ninety overs, 319 runs, 8 wickets. That is where things stood on the morning of Day 5 of New Zealand’s first Test tour of Pakistan in two decades, with all three results possible – the visitors with their noses ahead, given it was more likely to take eight wickets on a last day pitch, as opposed to scoring 300 plus runs on it.

The home team had lost both Abdullah Shafique and nightwatchman Mir Hamza in the final few overs of Day 4, both of them falling for ducks, as Shan Masood and Imam-ul-Haq took the field to see off Ish Sodhi’s solitary delivery and led Pakistan’s charge on what was the final day of Test cricket in the country for the rest of the year.

“We play this game to win. We will go out there, assess the conditions, and hopefully, we can put runs on board and pressure in terms of chasing the target. It was a good tactical declaration from New Zealand”. These were Shan Masood’s words before the start of the day’s play, which suggested that a victory was very much on Pakistan’s mind, provided they could get off to a good start.

And get off to a good start they did, as after edging Matt Henry for a lucky boundary between first and second slip, Imam-ul-Haq crunched the right-arm seamer for four more through extra cover, throwing weight behind Shan’s words.

Masood got off the mark courtesy of a boundary himself, mistiming a Matt Henry ball to bisect the cover and mid-off fielders, doubling his score via a cover drive against the same bowler shortly after. The under-pressure left-handed batter had displayed heaps of aggression since his return to Test cricket – a ploy that had not necessarily worked in his favor, as he looked to approach his game in a more controlled manner in what could very well prove to be his final Test innings.

Ish Sodhi, who had extracted some prodigious turn towards the end of the previous day to clean up Mir Hamza, was reintroduced to the attack in a bid to target the rough vs. the left-handed batting pair, only to be greeted by a driving Shan Masood, who dispatched the wrist spinner for a four down the ground, to the bowler’s right.

The Ludhiana-born leggie responded strongly, first threatening Imam-ul-Haq’s stumps by getting the ball to spin back into the bespectacled opener, beating him out of the rough, and then rattling them later in his spell on an almost identical delivery, as the in-form left-hander skipped down the track, missing the ball completely, in what was an extremely ugly dismissal.

Imam had failed to negate the Sodhi threat and had succumbed for a 26-ball 12, as Pakistan lost their third wicket with just 35 runs on board – a staggering 284 runs away from what would be a remarkable victory.

On the other end, however, Shan Masood had continued to look solid, creaming Tim Southee for another boundary between cover and mid-off – now joined by his captain Babar Azam out in the middle, who held the key with respect to Pakistan’s chances of achieving the unthinkable.

Babar, who had looked in pristine touch every time he had walked out to bat throughout Pakistan’s home season, was once again timing the ball as exquisitely as ever, particularly through the leg side, against both pace and spin, bringing out his flicks, whips, and nudges to fetch boundaries on the regular. Within the blink of an eye, Babar had drawn level with Shan’s score, scoring his fifth boundary in 37 deliveries – this one placed impeccably on the off side, piercing the gap between the cover and point fielders.

It took a Michael Bracewell over to flip the game on its head once again, as the right arm off-spinner first drew Shan Masood’s edge, only for it to trickle down to the boundary rope through the keeper and first slip and then got Babar Azam to nick one down the leg side, which make-shift wicketkeeper did well to hang on to, to send Pakistan’s captain packing for a score of 27 in the most anti-climactic of dismissals.

To say that the manner in which Babar departed was soft would be an understatement – his long walk back to the pavilion took with it the hopes of 225 million Pakistanis. Matters for the hosts would go on to take a turn for the worse, as Bracewell struck once again in quick succession, this time removing the well-set Shan Masood, who opted for a rather reckless loft over mid-off, with Kane Williamson successfully cupping the skier.

With the chips down and the series on the line, one expected the 33-year-old Shan to bat more responsibly, especially considering that he had already accumulated 35 runs, as Pakistan had now lost half their side for a score of just 80, with broad daylight between them and the target of 319.

Sarfaraz Ahmed, who himself was potentially playing his final knock for Pakistan in whites, put away a couple of fours through the point region before turning back to his ever-reliable sweep shot, finding the fence to good measure. Saud Shakeel, too scored his first boundary of the day by punching Ajaz Patel through extra cover as the Karachi-born batting pair looked to once again rescue their team from an improbable situation.

On the penultimate delivery before lunch, Tim Southee got Saud to edge one through the slip cordon and gully for the final boundary of the morning session, as Pakistan found themselves at 125 for five at the break, requiring 194 runs in 55 overs across two sessions, to win both the Test match and the series – the odds stacked heavily against them, of course.

On the first ball of the afternoon session, Sarfaraz Ahmed rocked back to thrash Ish Sodhi to the deep backward square fence, resuming Pakistan’s resistance in a commanding fashion in a Test match that looked sure to yield a result after days of pedestrian play.

The steady uptick of runs continued for the home side, some of them nervy, with the rub of the green in favor of the Saud-Sarfaraz partnership, which had now taken Pakistan’s score to beyond 150, meaning that nearly half of the target had successfully been charted, with more than forty overs still remaining in the day’s play.

As poor as he had been with his glovework, one could not help but admire the resilience and consistency shown by Sarfaraz, the batter, throughout the series, particularly against spin bowling. And so, it was fitting that Pakistan’s former skipper got to his fourth fifty on the trot with a trademark sweep for four off Ish Sodhi’s leg spin, drawing applause from a limited Karachi crowd in the form of loud cheers in celebration of their hometown hero.

To remove the in-form half-centurion, Tim Southee brought on Daryl Mitchell, the man with the golden arm, who had dismissed Sarfaraz in the first innings. This time, however, the wicketkeeper-batter brought out a late cut against Mitchell’s medium pace, finding the third-man fence with a deft touch to elevate the spirits of Pakistan supporters, who just a little while ago had lost all hope whatsoever. To their delight, the home team had made it to Tea without losing a single wicket in the afternoon session, with 140 runs left to chase in 31 overs in the final session of the series.

On the first ball of the final session, Sarfaraz Ahmed clipped Matt Henry for a single down fine leg to bring up the 100-run partnership between himself and Saud Shakeel before slog-sweeping Michael Bracewell’s off spin on consecutive deliveries, adding 10 runs to the total in just two balls.

The stands of the National Bank Cricket Arena in Karachi were more populated post-Tea than they had been all series, cheering every single run, as Pakistan cricket fans once again dared to dream, at their own risk, as always.

Saud Shakeel opened his shoulders for the first time in a while, hitting Bracewell for an inside-out four over extra cover, only to edge one to Daryl Mitchell at slip on the very next delivery, who took a sharp catch to send the compact southpaw back to the hut, for a score of 32. New Zealand had clawed their way back in contention, requiring just four more wickets to record their first Test series victory on Pakistani soil since 1969, with the home team still 116 runs away from the target.

An outside edge that flew to the fence off Salman Ali Agha’s bat saw the batting allrounder get off the mark, with the onus of leading Pakistan to an unlikely victory now falling on his and Safaraz’s shoulders, given that this was the home team’s last recognized batting pair. The latter was unfazed by Saud’s dismissal, as he once again hammered Michael Bracewell for consecutive boundaries, punishing a short and wide delivery through point before bringing out yet another sweep to enter the nervous nineties.

Chants of “Saifi, Saifi, Saifi” encapsulated the ground, with every single run that came off Sarfaraz’s bat applauded to the maximum, as the tally required for Pakistan to pull off a memorable series win decreased to double digits on the sidelines. The Karachi crowd did not have to wait for much longer, as in the midst of their deafening cheers, Sarfaraz Ahmed reached his fourth Test hundred, his first in over eight years, that too when his team required it most, in the fourth innings of a series decider.

It had been a champion knock by a lionhearted player, who went on to punch the ground in jubilation before prostrating in thanks to the Almighty, giving the spectators a moment to savor, who were fortunate enough to witness their local hero score his very first ton on his home turf.

An agricultural mow down the leg side for four by Salman Ali Agha saw the required runs drop below 80, as the Test series headed towards an exciting close – the game very much on a knife’s edge, with all three results still in the offing.

Salman took the charge to Ajaz Patel for back-to-back boundaries, wafting the left-arm spinner over cover before sweeping him fine to send the ever-growing crowd into a state of frenzy. Another twist was soon to follow, however, with Tim Southee’s reintroduction of pace into the attack, which allowed Matt Henry to get his first wicket of the innings by clattering Salman Ali Agha’s stumps, as the lower order batter looked to smash one across the line, missing the ball entirely, to depart for 30.

The new batter, Hassan Ali, who was known to have a penchant for hitting maximums, carted Ish Sodhi for a four on the pull to take Pakistan within 40 runs of what would be considered a heist of stupendous proportions in what was now a race against time vs. the Karachi sunset.

Four overs after it was made available, Tim Southee opted for the new ball, hoping to get the remaining three Pakistani wickets in quick time, given just nine overs of scheduled play remained in the day. The captain backed himself to force a breakthrough with the new cherry, a task he was successful in accomplishing, almost instantly, pinning Hassan Ali on the front leg with a ball that kept low to more or less eliminate Pakistan’s hopes of victory.

Naseem Shah took his sweet time to walk out to the crease, making it clear that the home side was now looking to secure a draw, as New Zealand were now smelling victory, given that just two further wickets separated them from a first Test series triumph on Pakistani shores, in 53 long years.

That killer instinct to steal a late win saw a significant increment within the Black Caps camp, as Michael Bracewell got Sarfaraz Ahmed to glove one to Kane Williamson at leg slip, bringing an end to his courageous knock of 118 runs, which also happened to be his highest score in Test cricket, as the hometown centurion made the long walk back to the pavilion to a standing ovation from the crowd.

In what was an extremely tense finish to the Test match, Pakistan’s last standing pair of Naseem Shah and Abrar Ahmed negotiated 21 deliveries to see their team through to a draw, with the former smacking two fours and a six in the process as spectators were treated to some edge-of-the-seat Test cricket.

Pakistan ended on a score of 304 runs, 15 away from the target of 319, with three overs of the day lost to bad light. The hosts had consequently avoided a third successive Test series defeat at home, and whilst they did not win the Test match, they ended their rather abysmal home season on a joyful note, largely thanks to Sarfaraz Ahmed’s unforgettable hundred on his native ground.

The comeback king went on to bag both Player of the Match and Series awards, having scored the third most runs by a wicketkeeper in a two-match series – 335 runs in 4 outings at a towering average of 83.75.

Babar Azam and Tim Southee shared the spoils as they lifted the trophy together, in scenes that brought immense relief to a cricket-mad fan base, which did not have much reason to smile over the course of five Test matches.

It had been a home season to forget for Pakistan, and a lot of questions with respect to the make-up of their red ball side were yet to be answered, but in this moment, they could afford to take some solace from this well-earned draw, with a will to improve in the next cycle of the World Test Championship.