Williamson, Nicholls steady after rocky start

3:00 AM ET

  • The Report by Danyal Rasool

Stumps New Zealand 272 for 4 (Williamson 139*, Nicholls 90*, Shaheen 2-55) and 274 (Williamson 89, Watling 77*, Bilal 5-65) lead Pakistan 348 (Azhar 134, Shafiq 104, Somerville 4-75) by 198 runs

Where Kane Williamson began the morning simply trying to keep his side afloat, he will put his feet up this evening 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 within two runs of a 200-run lead. His partnership with Henry Nicholls, who looked unsettled in the morning, but is no longer jittery – had exceeded 200 by stumps as the visitors flipped over the advantage that had eluded them for the best part of three days. It took a Herculean partnership, unbeaten over 80 overs, and just a handful of balls away from being the longest-ever in the UAE.

It is somewhat crazy to recall the situation this game was in just over 24 hours ago. A few minutes before tea on the third day, Pakistan stood – invincibly, purportedly – at 286 for 3, with Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq having brought up the 200-run stand, and pushing their side into the lead. But from thereon, they repeated the same mistakes that led to their downfall at this very venue in the first match of the series, even ending up eerily with exactly the same 74-run lead. The failure to press home a first-innings advantage for the second time in three Tests appeared then as if it might be costly, and Williamson and Nicholls saw to it that it is.

Short of the most dramatic of collapses tomorrow morning, Pakistan will either hang on to a draw or succumb as they have done multiple times in the past on the final day. It is a damning indictment for a side that should have come out the other end with a 3-0 whitewash.

There isn’t much to say about Williamson that won’t sound like an understatement. So good has the New Zealand skipper been over a number of years, it is a travesty he doesn’t get the attention leading lights such as Virat Kohli, Steven Smith and Joe Root do. Today, he was at his free-flowing best, the footwork impeccable, the drives mesmeric, and the composure hypnotic. The transfer of weight between the front and back foot never once let him down, and was especially evident when he was in his 90s.

A cover drive off either foot to Hasan Ali took him first to 98, and then his 19th Test hundred. New Zealand have never lost a Test in which their talismanic captain has reached three figures in the second innings, and with the 28-year-old unbeaten on 139 at stumps, that looks unlikely to change tomorrow.

Nicholls at the other end will have seen his stocks skyrocket this series. Every time he has been among 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 in the first Test proved priceless, this one could achieve similarly gratifying results. It is a testament to a good player how they come through when their side is struggling, and by that yardstick, Nicholls cuts a very impressive figure, given the baptism of fire he was put through when he first came in. Standing ten runs from a Test match hundred, few batsmen will have deserved a ton more based on performances over a full series.

In the final session, Pakistan surprisingly refused to take the new ball, persisting with the old one for 104 overs. It didn’t seem close to producing the results Pakistan looked for, but Sarfraz opted to stick with it for the spin it was generating. Frustratingly for him, though, New Zealand were more than a match for it, and the final session, one drop of Williamson aside, was perhaps the most controlled for the visitors. Moreover, Sarfraz continued to use Yasir Shah and Bilal Asif for much of the final two sessions, deciding against turning to Mohammad Hafeez but for one over before tea, and overlooking Haris Sohail altogether.

Their catching is something Pakistan will reflect on. Yasir might have had a memorable day, breaking Clarrie Grimmett’s record for the fastest to 200 Test wickets early on with the lbw dismissal of William Somerville, but more importantly, he dropped two sharp chances Williamson provided. The first one was perhaps the easier challenge, coming at quick but not impossible speed at square leg when the right-hander was on 80. Nicholls, too, was reprieved once at short leg, and with the sort of commitment this pair showed, they weren’t in need of a helping hand from the opposition.

The most curious passage of play, though, had come in the morning while Taylor was at the crease, entertaining and baffling 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 Afridi 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.

Tragically for Pakistan, the pair that followed had a more solemn approach to the task at hand. Nicholls and Williamson put on a masterclass for the ages and effectively batted Pakistan out of a game they controlled for over three days. 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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