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

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.

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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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