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Pakistan on the backfoot as Kane Williamson, Henry Nicholls stand tall

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Tea New Zealand 199 or 4 (Williamson 105*, Nicholls 54*, Shaheen 2-48) and 274 (Williamson 89, Watling 77*, Bilal 5-65) lead Pakistan 348 (Azhar 134, Shafiq 104, Somerville 4-75) by 125 runs

Where Kane Williamson began the morning simply trying to keep his side afloat, he will sip his evening cup of tea pondering the best way to press home an advantage that now decidedly belongs to his side in Abu Dhabi. A superlative second-innings century, his first in Asia in the second dig took New Zealand 125 runs ahead, with no further loss of wickets. Henry Nicholls was no longer the jittery, unsettled presence he had been in the morning, his own innings a commanding half-century coming at a time when New Zealand needed it most. Pakistan had a chance to dismiss both batsmen in the session, but sharp catches off each batsman were put down.

It is somewhat crazy to reflect on the situation 24 hours ago. A few minutes before tea on the third day, Pakistan stood invincibly at 286 for three, with Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq having brought up the 200 partnership, and pushed their side into a lead. From thereon, they repeated the same mistakes that led to their downfall at this very venue in the first match, even ending up eerily with exactly the same 74-run lead. Short of triggering a New Zealand collapse when the second new ball becomes available in 11 overs, they will cede this series to the visitors now, either via hanging on to a draw or succumbing as they have done in the past on the final day.

The drives through the offside were mesmeric enough, whether they came off the front or back foot. It is how Williamson navigated his way through the 90s, a cover drive off either foot to Hasan Ali taking him first to 98, and then his 19th Test match hundred. New Zealand have never lost a Test in which their talismanic captain has reached three figures in the second innings, and they have no intention of starting now.

Henry Nicholls at the other end will have seen his stock skyrocket this series. Every time he’s been amongst the runs, they have come in the second innings with his side behind in the game, and fighting to stay alive. All three second innings have produced half-centuries, and just as the one here in the first Test proved priceless, this one could achieve similarly gratifying results.

ALSO READ: Yasir Shah breaks 82-year-old record

The morning session had been about Yasir Shah, who finally broke Clarrie Grimmett’s record to reach 200 wickets in just 33 Tests, before Shaheen Afridi had Ross Taylor caught off the pull. It was his spell that engrossed viewers in, the legspinner finding turn that Ajaz Patel and Somerville had struggled to generate. Ironically, then, it was the straighter one which got him the anticipated 200th wicket, as Somerville went back to a ball that skidded on. The record was always assured, but Yasir’s joy was palpable. He looked up to the sky, he prostrated on the ground, and then, he got back to work.

The most curious passage of play came while Taylor was at the crease, entertaining and puzzling in equal measure. His dash to get off the strike against Yasir was understandable – no batsman has fallen victim to Yasir more often, but he attacked Shaheen at the other end the way a pinch-hitter might. On a day when a Williamson-Taylor partnership might have caused the greatest damage to Pakistan, New Zealand’s most prolific scorer was on a devil-may-care mission for a cameo instead. It never amounted to more than that, though, with a well-laid plan by Pakistan seeing him find the deep-square-leg fielder, for a 14-ball 22.

That was all the success Pakistan enjoyed, though Nicholls was put through a baptism of fire. It seemed certain he had edged one to Sarfraz and Pakistan reviewed, but UltraEdge showed otherwise. Shortly after, a huge appeal off Yasir was turned down; the ball tracking showed a review would have sent him back. Subsequently, another appeal was upheld, but a review from the batsman allowed him a reprieve. It was a maddening game of cat-and-mouse, and despite all the odds, Nicholls seemed to be winning it.

For Pakistan, though, it is no longer a game of such frivolity, with the same pair putting on a Test match masterclass. There is a lot Pakistan could learn from them about how to press home an advantage when you have it, but the time for learning has long passed. Abu Dhabi 2018 looks set to have Part 2 after all.



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‘We now bat better outside the UAE than in the UAE’ – Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur

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Born in Johannesburg, schooled at Westville Boys’ High, and fluent in Afrikaans, Mickey Arthur is as South African as they come. But Arthur hasn’t been here for five years, having last visited for a family funeral, and his intentions for this homecoming are clear: “I’ll make no secret of it, I’d love to come back here with a Pakistan team that is very talented, and win,” Arthur said after Pakistan arrived for three Tests, five ODIs and three T20Is.

Arthur’s first Christmas in the country of his birth for half a decade won’t involve much of the usual festive celebrations, and he insisted he “does not do” holidays. “Cricket is 24/7 for me,” Arthur added . “This is hard work. In fact, I’m working even harder here. But it is great to come back into an environment that I’m so familiar with.”

Arthur has brought a Test squad that is rebuilding around the experienced core of captain Sarfraz Ahmed, Azhar Ali, Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah, and Arthur reckons they have a “good chance” of securing a first ever Test series win in the country.

“We’ve come here with a very exciting young team. It’s a team that’s starting to gel well together. We’ve played unbelievable white-ball cricket. Our 50-over team is on the up, our T20 team has been exceptional, but we sit trying to build up a Test team. It’s a young Test team at the moment, but a very exciting Test team. We really think we have a good chance out here.”

The last time Pakistan toured, playing three Tests in 2013, AB de Villiers scored two hundreds and was Player of the Series. There is a very different look to South Africa’s current squad, and Arthur suggested that while South Africa’s batting is still good without de Villiers, Pakistan’s bowling is better than it was five years ago.

“They’re a good batting line-up, they are, but we’re a very good bowling line-up. So we do feel we can make some inroads there, for sure. Our bowling attack is incredibly skillful in all conditions. The one thing we do know is that we’ve got a bowling attack that can take 20 wickets comfortably. Our challenge is getting ourselves to 350, 400. If we can get runs on the board, we know that we can get 20 wickets and we can bowl in all conditions.”

The visiting batsmen will be aiming to move ahead of the inconsistencies that saw them twice score more than 300 and twice being rolled for under 200 in the recent 2-1 loss to New Zealand. “I hate that word ‘inconsistency’ because we’re trying everything to try and make us more and more consistent,” said Arthur.

Indeed, the Pakistan coach is realistic about the challenge facing his batsmen, but also laid out a statement of intent for the current batting crop. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that the South African bowling attack is exceptionally good. We know that that’s going to be a real challenge.

“I’ll make a statement now, that our young batting group now bat better outside the UAE than they do in the UAE. There’s some very talented young batsmen there. They don’t stand on leg stump anymore. Our batsmen get to off stump, they cover the bounce, they cover the pace and they cover the swing. And they play very well in these conditions.”

As for the lower order, which folded so spectacularly to hand New Zealand a win and the early advantage in the series in the first Test in Abu Dhabi, Arthur joked: “They’re going to get a lot of hard nets.”

For Sarfraz, the key ingredient for his batsmen to prosper on South African tracks will be to play “positive cricket”, a mantra that he broke down thus: “You have to show intent. Positive is not just to play your shots all around the world, just like Fakhar Zaman. Only Fakhar Zaman can play like Fakhar Zaman, and we tell him to play his own game. But the other players also have to show intent and play positive cricket. You have to, to win series outside your country.”

After a warm-up against an Invitation XI, Pakistan’s tour will start with a historic Boxing Day Test match at Centurion – the first time that the annual fixture has moved inland from the coast since readmission. It’s a ground Arthur knows well, having played 17 times there during his domestic career with Griqualand West and Free State teams, but the character of the Centurion pitch has changed dramatically since his playing days.

“It’s changed totally,” Arthur agreed . “I was watching the Test match last year, and it looked like you were playing in the UAE. The surface was completely bare. I’m not sure what’s going on over there. If it does turn, then happy days. I’m not sure it will, but I watched the [Mzansi Super League] T20 game the other night, and the square did look a lot better. We just hope for good wickets. If there’s a bit of grass, then happy days as well, because we’ve got the bowlers to expose that.”

Before the first ball is bowled at Centurion, Arthur will no doubt catch up with friends and family in South Africa, and for him, South Africa is a “lekker plek om te kom speel (a great place to come and play),” but he doubled down on his intentions here. There will be, he says, “no holiday. I’ll enjoy only if we win.”



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Four-day Tests loom in Australia’s future

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A November 2020 home fixture against Afghanistan looms as a likely rehearsal for four-day Test matches in Australia, as the Cricket Australia chief executive Kevin Roberts declared the governing body and other nations needed to be more open to the concept beyond the end of the first two editions of the World Test Championship from 2019 to 2023.

Television ratings for the first Test against India in Adelaide, the inaugural home Test under the new dual broadcast deal with Fox Sports and Seven, spiked noticeably on the Sunday, a day that would likely become the consistent final day of matches should four-day Tests become more prevalent. The two networks gained a combined audience of 1.261 million during the third session, comfortably the largest of the match.

Roberts, who replaced James Sutherland as CA chief executive in October, said that the combination of audience sizes, easing of scheduling squeezes, and Test cricket’s own history of variable playing hours made the four-day question a serious one for all administrators, particularly for Tests played outside the championship locked into five-day matches.

“Outside the Test Championship that’s the opportunity,” Roberts told SEN Radio. “The Test Championship is five-day Test cricket out to 2021, so that doesn’t change, but outside of that there are other possibilities to consider and beyond that, beyond 2021 what it might look like. There’s a bit to be said for it isn’t there, and it’s certainly something I think we need to be open-minded to down the track.

“The average duration of a Test match is just a shade over four days and certainly without jumping to conclusions that that is the right solution, it is one possibility we’ve got to be open to. There’s been timeless Tests over the years, we know there were even three-day Tests, so Test cricket has not been five days in duration forever, and I think the concept of four days going forward is something we need to be open to without jumping to conclusions.”

Australia entered into discussions with Ireland about playing an inaugural Test ahead of next year’s Ashes series before being outmanoeuvred by the ECB, which scheduled a Test against Ireland at Lord’s by way of England’s own preparation for the same series. The Afghanistan Test, scheduled for November 2020 in the lead-up to the next home series against India, would provide an ideal chance to try the shorter match, probably played over around 100 overs per day.

A crowd of 20,641 turned up to Perth Stadium for the first day of the second Test against India, comfortably less than half the venue’s cavernous 60,000 capacity. While claiming that the crowd was greater than the capacity of the venerable WACA Ground across the Swan River – larger attendances were recorded for each of the first three days of last year’s Ashes Test – Roberts was unable to answer why the premium space behind the bowler’s arm at the Justin Langer Stand end of the stadium had been shut. This has meant that only members have been able to watch play from that vantage point.

“Good question and I don’t have an answer to that one right now,” Roberts said. “I’m not familiar with the specific details as to how level 5 operates and can you operate sections at a time. I don’t know the answer to that but it’s a good question as you look at it from the box here, a brilliant view down the wicket from where we’re sitting. They’re the sorts of things that we always need to consider, how many people can we get behind the bowler’s arm. So it’s a good question and unfortunately I don’t have a good answer for you.

“The facts are we had about 3,000-4,000 spare seats in the shade that were available for people who required them. In the event that those were used and we needed more we had plans to immediately open level five as well. We judged that based on need and there were enough seats in the shade based on need and in the event we ran out of those, then level five was being opened up, so there was a lot of talk about it. But in terms of the facts of that one, there were more seats available in the shade.

“I wouldn’t suggest that was an economic decision, it was a practical decision yesterday in terms of the most practical way to operate the stadium. In the event there was need then there was absolutely no opposition from a CA perspective to opening up level 5. There’s always a balance and we’re conscious that things will never be perfect for absolutely every individual at a stadium, but certainly we seek to optimise them as much as we can.”



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‘Once a couple of guys got in, it was tough work’ – Tim Southee

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Sri Lanka may have recovered well after they had been gasping at 9 for 3 early in the day, but New Zealand’s own batsmen might not be disappointed at how this Basin Reserve pitch is playing. Those were the thoughts of Tim Southee, who claimed figures of 5 for 67 and was the architect of Sri Lanka’s early wobble, taking three wickets in his first two overs.

Once batsmen got in though, it was possible for them to succeed. Dimuth Karunaratne and Angelo Mathews, for example, put on a 133-run partnership for the fourth wicket. Niroshan Dickwella made 73 not out off 91 balls towards the end of the day, which Sri Lanka ended on 275 for 9.

“Once Mathews and Karunaratne got in they played nicely after losing three early,” Southee said. “What our batsmen will take out of it is that when you get in it can look reasonably easy. Dickwella’s come out and played aggressively, and he’s played a gem of an innings so far for them. It was a frustrating one for us. But we can turn up tomorrow and try and get that last wicket as quick as possible, and hopefully our batsmen can get stuck in.”

This was Southee’s first ever five-wicket haul at the Basin Reserve, and the eighth in his career overall. Sri Lanka happen to be among his favourite opponents. He now has 38 wickets against them at an average of 17.92.

“It’s nice to get some wickets – the key here at the Basin especially on day one is to try and pitch it up,” he said. “It did swing for the majority of the day, but sometimes it doesn’t do as much as people think it’s going to do and we saw that. Once a couple of guys got in, it was tough work.”

Though Southee’s first three wickets were a result of seam and swing – he nailed left-hander Danushka Gunathilaka in front of the stumps with a straightening delivery, had Dhananjaya de Silva nicking off, and then had Kusal Mendis caught at short midwicket – his wickets later in the day came from bouncers. Southee had Dinesh Chandimal holing out to deep square leg before dismissing Angelo Mathews with a chest-high delivery that the batsman top-edged to the wicketkeeper.

Typically, it had been Neil Wagner who first attempted the short-ball attack, but when Southee followed suit it was he who gleaned the greater rewards.

“It was nipping around and swinging early on, but there was a bit of a dull period and we knew we needed to try something different. I don’t think I could bowl short balls for 10 overs at a time like Waggy does. He’s phenomenal at it. Some would say mad. But at the time we needed something different and it did kind of work today.”



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