HAMILTON: Ross Taylor's 16th Test hundred drove New Zealand to a declaration 20 minutes from stumps on the fourth day, setting Pakistan an improbable 369 to win the Hamilton Test.
Given that the Test match had lost roughly four sessions to rain, New Zealand had done excellently to give themselves a solid chance of winning the series 2-0. The pitch seemed to have flattened out considerably, and was offering much less seam movement than it had done on the first two days, but there were signs of inconsistent bounce as the fourth day wore on, with Taylor taking a number of blows to his gloves.
Taylor walked in at the end of a 96-run second-wicket stand between Tom Latham and Kane Williamson and built on that platform with one of his most fluent innings in recent memory. Only three of his runs came in the V, partly a reflection of the length Pakistan's seamers bowled to him, but that didn't make any difference to his run-flow as he rumbled along at a strike rate of over 75, peppering the boundaries square and behind square with flicks, glances and every variety of the cut.
Pakistan began the day bowling with skill and discipline, starting with four straight maidens and removing Jeet Raval in the eighth over of the New Zealand innings. But their resolve weakened as New Zealand piled on the runs in conditions that seemed far easier to bat in than on the first two days. New Zealand steadily accelerated through the day, scoring at 2.94 per over in the first session, 3.50 in the second, and 4.63 after tea, with Colin de Grandhomme contributing a 21-ball 32 at No. 6.
New Zealand started the day on 0 for 0, and the scoreboard didn't budge until the 27th ball of the morning. Mohammad Amir bowled a particularly testing first spell, swinging the new ball both ways, and gave Pakistan an early breakthrough with a beautifully set-up dismissal: first a wide-ish outswinger that the left-handed Jeet Raval ignored; then another outswinger, closer to off stump, forcing a play-and-miss; followed by an inswinger from a virtually identical line and length. Raval played down the wrong line, and the ball missed his inside edge and thudded into his front pad.
Pakistan's discipline wavered just a touch when Williamson walked in, but that was also down to the new batsman cutting down their margins for error. He hit three fours while moving to 16 off 19 balls: a late cut, a back-foot punch and a steer through point, none of which came off a genuinely bad ball.
Having recalibrated their length to Williamson, Pakistan conceded only six runs off the next 36 balls they bowled to him, building just enough pressure to cause him to attempt a risky single that endangered his partner. Yasir Shah, on the field as a substitute, swooped in from point and hit the stumps at the keeper's end with an underarm flick, and it took multiple replays from multiple angles for the third umpire to give Latham the benefit of doubt. It was one of those calls where Latham's bat was short of the crease when the ball struck the stumps, and past the crease with the bail off its groove in the next frame, with the cameras incapable of producing the decisive in-between frame.
As the session progressed, Pakistan may have wished Yasir's legspin was available to them, as the batsmen began to assert themselves. Latham picked up a steady stream of leg-side singles, while Williamson strode forward to play the shot of the morning, an on-the-up drive through the covers off a blameless delivery from Wahab Riaz.
Imran Khan ended the partnership in the fifth over after lunch, angling one into Williamson, forcing him to play, and nipping it away from just short of a good length to find his outside edge.
That could have been the second wicket in a short span of time, had Sami Aslam clung on to a chance offered by Latham with 2.3 overs left for lunch. Amir, inevitably, was the unlucky bowler. Latham pulled him in the air, to the left of midwicket. Aslam dived and got his left hand to the ball, but couldn't hold on. In Amir's next over, Latham rubbed it in, straight-driving, flicking, and pulling him for three fours to reach his half-century.
Williamson's dismissal brought Taylor to the crease, and he soon announced himself with a flurry of square and late-cuts, needing the bare minimum of width or shortness of length to get on top of the bounce and chop the ball away.
Latham had moved to 80 when Wahab Riaz bounced him out in the middle of a typically hostile spell. With the ball rearing towards his head and cramping him for room, Latham flung his hands up and popped a catch to the wicketkeeper off his top glove.
Wahab should have had the wicket of Henry Nicholls as well. New to the crease, Nicholls' footwork was severely tested by Wahab's pace, and he edged him past second slip's left hand before playing and missing with feet rooted to the spot. In his next over, he took on the short ball, and just about cleared the leaping long leg fielder with a hurried hook. For some reason, Sohail Khan was standing some ten yards inside the boundary rather than on the rope, where the chance would have been fairly straightforward.
Nicholls didn't last too long after tea, going after an extremely wide ball from Imran and toe-ending to the keeper, but Pakistan didn't have too long to celebrate, as de Grandhomme slashed, punched and pulled his way to six fours in 21 balls as the seamers began to lose their lengths.
With the lead passing 300 and then 350, New Zealand knew they had enough on the board, and BJ Watling's caution at the start of his innings suggested they were only waiting for Taylor to reach his hundred. He did so in the most appropriate manner, getting on top of a marginally short ball from Imran and crashing it to the backward point boundary. He gestured to the dressing room that he was ready to come off the field, but Williamson told him to carry on batting, prompting the thought that New Zealand wanted to bat till stumps and have the choice of roller in the morning. Not quite. The declaration came two balls later.