A flawed, yet resolute fightback spurs Pakistan on

Somehow, almost out of nowhere, Pakistan has a sniff of conjuring the greatest chase in Test history. They still need 108 runs for the world-record target of 490, with just two wickets left, but Pakistan suddenly has a groundswell of momentum after the most outrageous final session on Sunday (December 18).

Positivity is emanating from this previously sullen group, who must now surely sense Australia’s growing nervousness. After all, it was only a month ago Australia was in full blown crisis mode. Remarkably, within the space of a madcap final session, the series has been turned on its head. Perhaps the series will be far more competitive than anyone could have imagined after Australia utterly dominated the opening three days.

Under the lights where the pink ball menaces, a supposed graveyard for batsmen, in the prolonged final session Pakistan scored a staggering 179 runs in 41 overs for the loss of just three wickets. Unfortunately for them, the wicket of gritty tail-ender Wahab Riaz (30 from 56) in the last over halted some of the momentum and makes the task significantly more difficult.

Still, for inspiration Pakistan doesn’t have to go too far back in the annals. In the memorable Edgbaston Ashes Test of 2005, perhaps the best Test this millennium, Australia on the fourth morning needed 107 runs for victory with two wickets in hand. Of course, they fell just three runs short in a heartbreaking finish but Pakistan will be aiming to cause similar anxiety for the home side.

Regardless of what happens on the final day – there is still the distinct possibility a refreshed Australian attack finishes the Test within the opening 10 minutes – Pakistan’s batting fused with audaciousness and resoluteness has provided a desperately-needed spur for a struggling team.

In many ways, day 4 was a salivating snapshot of what could be achieved under Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’s new coach. Nearly everyone expected Pakistan to wilt under pressure in their second innings, as they are prone to do, particularly in Australia. However, continuing their fight from late on day 3, the visitors impressively grinded through a dogged third-wicket partnership of 91 runs from 202 balls between Azhar Ali (71) and Younis Khan (65).

The pair batted the entirety of the first session and their stonewalling harked memories of South Africa’s penchant to scrap throughout the years. Arthur, a South African, has attempted to bring a harder edge to the innately unpredictable Pakistan line-up. When he coached South Africa from 2005-10, Arthur helped mould superstar batsman AB de Villiers, while legendary allrounder Jacques Kallis was the team’s fulcrum during those years. Not surprisingly, Arthur has a special affinity for the pair, particularly their unwavering ability to focus on the task at hand.

Arthur, a stickler for discipline which brought about his downfall as Australia’s coach, has undoubtedly preached similar virtues to his Pakistani pupils. Under Arthur’s gaze, Azhar and Younis’s steely partnership early on Day 4 was reminiscent of an archetypal South African dogfight.

Perhaps most impressively, Pakistan had contributors down the order with even tail-enders Mohammad Amir (48) and Wahab Riaz (30) amongst the runs despite sporting macabre Test batting averages. Once again, it was reminiscent of South Africa’s major strength of batting right down the order making them hard to take 20 wickets against. Conversely, in a major weakness for them, Pakistan has often had their lower order scythed in previous tours to Australia.

Those fighting characteristics throughout the order undoubtedly manifest from Arthur’s hard-nosed tutelage. However, in the final session under lights, Pakistan unchained the handcuffs and started plundering the bowling in the most cavalier fashion. Undoubtedly, Australia’s bowling was ragged and, in an attempt to wrap up the game early, they seemingly lost focus and started flagging as the never-ending day continued past 10pm local time.

No. 6 Asad Shafiq astoundingly counterattacked and brought up his tenth – and undoubtedly best – Test century of the career. Combining with Amir and then Wahab, Shafiq slapped Australia’s vaunted bowling to all parts of the Gabba as Pakistan started to get within range of sniffing a major boil over.

The batting bravado, which withstood Mitchell Starc’s fire and brimstone, was Pakistan at their adventurous best; one of those inimitable stretches where their intoxicating talents fused so thrillingly. Notably, it was an intriguing glimpse into Arthur’s disciplined mantra juxtaposed with Pakistan’s innate audaciousness. On day 4, Arthur and his team memorably meshed.

Speaking in the press conference after play, Azhar said Pakistan wanted to trust themselves after a tough start to the series. “Before we started today, the discussion was to back ourselves and our ability to score runs in these conditions,” he said. “(The) first innings didn’t go to plan…the message from captain and coach was to back ourselves. Everyone played with determination and skill, as a unit we are really happy.

“We didn’t play up to our potential in the first innings but in the second everyone put their hand up and tried his best. It will really help us for the rest of the series,” he added.

Azhar paid tribute to Shafiq’s brilliant knock and hoped the No. 6 could guide Pakistan into the record books. “Our lower order didn’t have good averages but he (Shafiq) batted with them really well,” he said. “He’s a brilliant player who can bat at any position…he bats at No. 6 really well, better than any of us.”

Azhar believed the late wicket of Wahab “really hurt” their chances of victory but said the fightback would bode well for the remainder of the series. “We only have two wickets (left) but we have hopes we can get closer (to the target),” he said. “We didn’t score collectively in New Zealand…it’s a big confidence booster for us and a lot of players got back into form. That will give us confidence as a batting unit.”

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