Friday, December 11, 2009

O'Brien and openers lift New Zealand

New Zealand 47 for 0 trail Pakistan 223 (Farhat 117*, O'Brien 4-35, Tuffey 4-52) by 176 runs

Don't be fooled by the score. It was a flat track in Napier but Iain O'Brien was on a mission to make his last Test memorable and Pakistan's top order, as ever, was in a self-destructive mood. Imran Farhat lifted Pakistan from the depths of 59 for 5 and resuscitated his career with a fighting century but New Zealand will be more than pleased with their efforts, especially after a dogged batting display from the openers, on the first day of the final Test.

Until Farhat produced his hundred it was all O'Brien. At one point his figures read: 4.2-4-3-3. He was hostile throughout his spell, consistently bowling over 140 kmph, and was always accurate but, even so, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that even he would have been slightly surprised by the results.

On a flat pitch, Pakistan's top order contrived to implode yet again by playing poor cricket. Only one batsman, Misbah-ul-Haq, was taken out by a difficult delivery; the rest were simply not good enough. Tim Southee claimed the initial breakthrough when Salman Butt left a gaping gap between bat and pad to lose his middle stump, after which O'Brien took over. And how.

O'Brien sussed out quickly that Faisal Iqbal was a sitting target because of his awkward feet movement and aimed one at his throat, forcing an ugly fend to the slip cordon. He tied up Yousuf with his disciplined lines and lengths before hurling one short of a length outside off stump. Yousuf thought it would be the ideal chance to break the shackles but was done in by the extra bounce and edged it to second slip.

It was the recurring theme of a bizarre morning. O'Brien tied up edgy batsmen with his discipline before delivering the knock-out blow with some thing extra. Misbah got a gem early in his innings: The ball held its line outside off and Misbah couldn't help edging it behind.

Pakistan's debacle was exemplified by Umar Akmal's dismissal. It was a short-of-length delivery that straightened well outside off stump. It could have been left alone or cut to the point boundary but Umar, the best of the Pakistan batsman in this series, just hung his bat out and guided it straight to gully.

Fortunately for Pakistan, though, Farhat couldn't have chosen a better moment to resuscitate his career. It would be churlish to dismiss Farhat's effort as streaky, though there were several play and misses and a couple of curious slogs which would have raised blood-pressure levels in the dressing room, but that's how he seems to play. There were spurts where Farhat seemed to lose concentration and went for pressure-reliving big hits and there were phases where he looked to be in control. Or something resembling it at least.

The fact that the last century by a Pakistan opener outside the subcontinent was Salman Butt's effort in Sydney way back in 2005 would make fans overlook Farhat's iffy patches and remember the good things from the knock. Amid nervous slashes, Farhat played a couple of off drives - the one in the seventh over against Chris Martin being the shot of the day - and a few well-timed cover drives. There was a flamboyant square drive too, on a bent knee for added effect, a crunchy pull shot and he definitely got better in the second session, during which he seemed surer of where his off stump was. He grew increasingly bolder and played big shots against Daniel Vettori to reach his hundred. Farhat found support in Mohammad Aamer in the afternoon and proceeded to lead Pakistan out of shambles.

Farhat's knock, and perhaps more importantly Aamer's defiance, revealed two truths: The pitch was a true, firm surface that did offer bounce but not much movement, and the other Pakistan batsmen didn't apply themselves. Luckily for them, Farhat refused to fade away without a fight. He added 69 runs with Aamer and 35 with Umar Gul before Daryl Tuffey hastened the end with a triple strike post tea. Tuffey terminated Gul's defiance and removed Mohammad Asif for a first-ball duck before he took out the enterprising Danish Kaneria. However, till Farhat did his thing, it was O'Brien who owned the morning and Ian Smith was moved enough to say on air: "Someone offer his wife a job here ... we don't wanna miss this fella!"

The icing on the cake for New Zealand was the performance from their openers; McIntosh, who has been lbw a few times in this series, took care not to get the front leg in line and BJ Watling didn't embarrass himself on debut. Their 47-run opening stand, the best for New Zealand in the series, capped a near-perfect day for the hosts.

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