Pakistan were on the verge of an historic victory against Australia last night. Of course, another way of looking at it is they are on the edge of yet another defeat, which would be more historic still.
As the players walked off in bright sunshine, in accordance with regulations but as far removed from commonsense as it is possible to be without turn in the psychiatrist's chair, Pakistan needed another 40 runs to win the second Test with seven wickets in hand. A formality in so many ways, except that the this team, with 13 straight Test defeats to Australia and without a win for 15 years, had just shown signs of wobbling in sight of the line.
At 137 for 1 they had overcome the early loss of their captain, Salman Butt, who had been a bag of nerves, and were seemingly cruising. Victory on the third evening was still within their scope. But that was much too straightforward for Pakistan. Cruising invariably leads into choppy waters.
Looking desperately for a wicket, Australia's captain reintroduced to the attack the left-arm fast bowler, Doug Bollinger, whose performance hitherto had been less champagne than ditchwater. But Bollinger has built his short Test career on a big heart and with his sixth ball he unleashed a swinging yorker which whizzed through Imran Farhat's late prod and hit the off stump.
In the next over, a lifter outside off stump had Umar Amin edging behind. The line which a few moments earlier had been in full view suddenly moved a few yards into the distance.
Pakistan should still do it after dismissing Australia for 88 on the first day. No side has won a Test match after scoring fewer than 100 in their first innings since 1907. But it is more recent history of their tangles with Australia which will have weighed on Pakistan as they left Headingley, a ground where in any case they have won only once before.
Farhat had played with eminent sense. His shot selection against indifferent bowling was wise and, after Butt went, Azhar Ali played with the pragmatism of a man in his 102nd Test, rather than his second. They defended the good balls of which there were too few and hit the bad ones of which there were many. Farhat struck nine fours in his 67 including a few rasping cuts. It was all going so swimmingly but Australia are never beaten and Pakistan know it.
Australia were kept in the match only by an innings of remarkable bravura from Steve Smith. Entering the arena at 164 for 5 his enterprise ensured that the last five wickets added 185 runs.
If he was particularly harsh on Danish Kaneria's leg spin, he was the only Australian batsman not to be discomfited by the swinging ball. Smith hits to improbable areas, stands deep in the crease to pull and is not afraid to dance down the track.
He unleashed an array of scintillating shots at odds with anything else seen before in the Test. He planted Kaneria for two straight sixes, the second of which sailed into the roof of the Football Stand and did not come down again.
Smith was given just enough support by the tail to set a target which was more than enough to cause the Pakistani dressing-room to tremble. They needed 180 to win by the time Smith was the last man out, essaying one unlikely attacking shot too many – four more than the 176 they failed to acquire in Sydney only seven months earlier.
Until this dramatic assault, the day had belonged to Pakistan and particularly to their 18-year-old left-arm fast bowler Mohammad Amir. There are three left-arm pacemen in this match, including the World Cricketer of the Year, Mitchell Johnson, but the most influential by far has been the teenager. Amir finished with 4 for 86.
He gave Pakistan the most uplifting of starts to the day when Ricky Ponting had a dash at a wide outswinger which he edged behind; he then produced a wonderful cutting delivery to remove Mike Hussey. Until Smith came along it seemed that Pakistan's target might stay in double figures. It is now, but one way or another history awaits.
Third day of five: Pakistan trail Australia by 39 runs with seven second-innings wickets remaining
Australia won toss
Australia First Innings 88
Pakistan First Innings 258 (S R Watson 6-33)
Australia Second Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls
* R T Ponting c Akmal b Aamer 66 0 7 116
M J Clarke c Akmal b Asif 77 0 7 143
M E K Hussey c Akmal b Aamer 8 0 1 16
M J North b Aamer 0 0 0 5
†T D Paine c Ali b Kaneria 33 0 5 84
S P D Smith b Gul 77 2 9 100
M G Johnson lbw b Asif 12 0 1 25
B W Hilfenhaus c Akmal b Kaneria 17 0 4 16
D E Bollinger not out 0 0 0 9
Extras (b 4, lb 10, w 2, nb 8) 24
Total (95.3 overs) 349
Fall: 1-15, 2-55, 3-144, 4-158, 5-164, 6-217, 7-246, 8-283, 9-320, 10-349.
Bowling: M Aamer 27-6-86-4, M Asif 26-3-83-2, U Gul 15.3-2-80-1, U Amin 6-1-12-1, D P S Kaneria 21-2-74-2.
Pakistan Second Innings
Runs 6s 4s Bls
I Farhat b Bollinger 67 0 9 95
*S Butt c Clarke b Hilfenhaus 13 0 2 16
A Ali not out 47 0 5 104
U Amin c Bollinger b Bollinger 0 0 0 6
U Akmal not out 2 0 0 6
Extras (lb 6, nb 5) 11
Total (3 wkts, 37 overs) 140
Fall: 1-27, 2-137, 3-137.
To bat: S Malik, †K Akmal, M Aamer, U Gul, D P S Kaneria, M Asif.
Bowling: D E Bollinger 8-1-37-2, B W Hilfenhaus 6-1-16-1, M G Johnson 9-1-39-0, S R Watson 5-1-18-0, S P D Smith 9-2-24-0.
Umpires: I J Gould & R E Koertzen.
Match referee: BC Broad.
Reserve umpire: Z Haider.Reuse content