Pakistan’s bowlers were splendid in Mount Maunganui, but Williamson and Taylor were just a little bit better.
This is just about acceptable. Yes, New Zealand are on top, and yes, Pakistan’s answer to Kane Williamson is currently nursing a thumb injury, while Pakistan’s answer to Ross Taylor disappeared down the same cracks as Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq’s potential over the years.
Yes, that means the template New Zealand followed against West Indies is still very much on, particularly given the vulnerability of Pakistan’s batting order and the confidence surging through New Zealand’s quick bowlers. But for all of that, and the frustrations Pakistan will be nursing now that a grinding day is over, few, even in the bitter, scapegoat-y world of Pakistan cricket analysis, could throw much blame Pakistan’s way.
Mohammad Rizwan won the toss – the sixth successive time a coin has bested a New Zealand skipper this summer – and bowled on a surface greener than most outfields in Pakistan are this or any other time of the year. Unlike West Indies, Pakistan’s new ball bowlers Shaheen Afridi and Mohammad Abbas took advantage of the grass on the wicket and the new ball, striking to remove New Zealand’s struggling openers early.
They did so not because they went in search of magic deliveries, but because they stuck to that niggly line just outside off stump that has brought them success in most places they play.
Clip that opening spell, set up a tutorial and use them to teach every visiting side how to bowl on the first morning in New Zealand. In a masterclass of execution, Afridi and Abbas appeared to be exploiting the conditions so expertly they might as well have been raised under the shadow of Mount Maunganui itself, rather than first time visitors to this place.
Tom Latham floundered and Tom Blundell fiddled and both inevitably fell to Afridi, though Abbas could claim assists for both dismissals thanks to a six-over spell of metronomic efficiency in which no quarter was given. He might not have known it was one day out from Christmas for the lack of generosity on offer. Or he might have been auditioning for Scrooge’s part.
Thirty of the 36 balls Abbas bowled in that opening burst were length balls outside off stump, with only three full deliveries, meaning he hadn’t been fooled by the grass on the surface and gone searching for phantom swing. Twenty-six of Afridi’s deliveries in his first six overs were length balls on or around off stump, with both wickets coming off those deliveries.
But this isn’t a story of the ball getting older and the bowlers losing their discipline, allowing Williamson and Taylor to build that attritional partnership that dominated the best part of the day.
The figures suggest that Pakistan’s lengths didn’t waver much at all throughout the first two sessions, with Faheem Ashraf justifying his inclusion as an extra seamer by turning in a rigidly disciplined performance, if not quite as penetrative as his more storied counterparts. Williamson left him particularly well, but it was telling that that was the New Zealand captain’s most secure option against a bowler some might have felt the hosts would target.
Eighty percent of the balls he bowled targeted that fourth stump, and while the wickets column remained empty, 15 runs in 10 overs in the first two sessions suggested he wasn’t much of a downgrade to Abbas.
All of this, as you might have picked up, is really rather good, but so, you’ll likely have noticed, are Taylor and Williamson. Taylor, overtaking Daniel Vettori to become the most-capped New Zealand cricketer in history, demonstrated why he’s hung around so long, taking a more assertive role as Williamson took his time settling in, and pouncing upon Pakistan’s genuine weak link, Yasir Shah, just before tea to secure control of the day for his side. Williamson, meanwhile, left what he could and dead-batted the rest in the first two sessions, undoubtedly only aggravating the frustrations of Pakistan bowlers who would have felt they deserved better for the discipline they showed.
New Zealand’s two greatest living batsmen would refuse to leave the crease for the best part of 50 overs, as if having marked out the 22 yards as the place they would squat. They have done that often enough by now to be able to claim ownership rights; this was their tenth hundred partnership together, more than any other New Zealand pair has managed. Few will have felt as much of a grind; equally, few will feel as rewarding.
Afridi would return to give Pakistan one more shot in the arm, removing Taylor with a bit of extra bounce, but Williamson was going nowhere. It wasn’t a completely chanceless innings – he was lucky an lbw shout wasn’t sent upstairs – and the two catches Pakistan put down in the slips barely count by their inexorably slipping fielding standards.
The strike rate, once languishing around 20, had picked up, and the fluency was returning to his shots. Pakistan’s accuracy after tea had begun to fall away, as Williamson and Taylor will have known it inevitably would. That it lasted two sessions was a fairly impressive feat, one that on another day might have seen them well into New Zealand’s tail by now.
Solid bowling performance? Yes. Bowlers dominating batsmen for large periods? Most certainly. The reward? Waking up tomorrow to get ready to bowl at Williamson, unbeaten on 94, with the scoreboard reading 222 for 3. If that’s what a decent day looks like, this short, two-match series might become an interminable one for Rizwan’s side.