Bulawayo: Pakistan accumulated 241 runs on the third day, as the lifeless Queens Park Club pitch joined forces with batsmen lacking in intent and butter-fingered fielders to leave the match meandering towards oblivion. Mohammad Hafeez made his first away ton, and Azhar Ali contributed a steady half-century, but Misbah-ul-Haq produced the most impressive innings of the day as Pakistan crawled towards first-innings parity. Zimbabwe played their part in Pakistan's dominance, spilling five catches in the innings, to leave their limited bowling attack in turmoil.
Zimbabwe's day of toil was ushered in by their mind-numbingly predictable lengths from the first ball - a Kyle Jarvis half-volley that Azhar punched down the ground. The seamers lacked the pace to bother the batsmen and focussed on tight lengths, hoping for an error. It was a plan that played into the hands of each of Pakistan's batsmen, starting with Hafeez.
Hafeez's forward press is designed for batsman-friendly pitches such as this one. His ability to lean out and drive through the line - and when required, on the up - makes him an entertaining fair-weather batsman. He had a scare in the second over of the day, when Chris Mpofu grassed a return catch, but the reprieve only increased Hafeez's resolve.
He remained cautious until he reached the century off his 128th ball, but after that the drives and glides began to flow more naturally, as Mpofu and Vitori paid the price for offering width.
While Hafeez played within himself, Azhar provided the sparkle. His batting technique is founded on stronger fundamentals than Hafeez's - a balanced trigger movement, decisive footwork and soft hands. Azhar was fluent off the pads, but his best strokes came through the off side, when he caressed Vitori and punched Mpofu through extra cover, off either foot.
The action slowed down in the lead-up to lunch, until Hafeez lazily spooned Hamilton Masakadza to midwicket. It was just the tonic Zimbabwe's spinners needed, and they began vigorously after the break.
Greg Lamb had a confident shout for a bat-pad catch against Younis Khan turned down, before Ray Price convinced everyone except the umpire that he had Azhar plumb in front with a slider. Younis then nearly popped a return catch to Lamb, as Zimbabwe's bowlers finally found some bite.
Azhar responded to the pressure with an exasperated inside-out carve off Lamb, before jumping out to heave him over mid-on. Lamb persevered, and nabbed Azhar with a classic offspinner's dismissal, eliciting the loose drive with flight, and finding the inside edge with the turn. With Younis fumbling against Price, it took Misbah's bloody-minded defence, interspersed with surprise moments of aggression to re-establish Pakistan's voice after lunch.
Zimbabwe dropped their third catch in three sessions, when Vusi Sibanda at midwicket missed a straightforward offering from Misbah. Thereafter Misbah was immovable. With a forward stride that would have given Jason Gillespie an inferiority complex, he smothered nearly everything that was tossed in his half. He allowed the spinners a series of dot balls before suddenly taking a six and two fours off successive balls from Lamb. Those shots signalled the end of Zimbabwe's most intense phase, and the spin gambit gave way to the second new ball.
Barring one delivery from Jarvis that seamed away to take Younis' edge, the fast bowlers remained toothless. Having stretched out miles to kill spin, Misbah receded into the crease to capitalise on leg-stump offerings from the seamers. The pull earned him a couple of boundaries, but Younis remained circumspect. Zimbabwe helped him along, with short leg fluffing a chance when Price got extra bounce seven balls before tea.
Misbah rolled past fifty, but Price's rhythm began to trouble him too. At one point, Price boasted other-worldly figures of 30-17-29-0. He turned a couple right across Misbah's bat-face from the rough, forcing him into slog-sweep mode once again. Lamb ultimately got Misbah to top-edge to a wobbly Vitori at short fine-leg, the fielder's sheepish reaction probably suggesting surprise that someone finally held a catch.
That surprise was short-lived, as Brendan Taylor promptly dropped an Umar Akmal edge in the slips. Umar couldn't capitalise, and exited in bizarre fashion on the stroke of stumps, pulling a long hop into short-leg's shoulder, for Taylor to pouch it on the rebound.
Younis plodded along though, and almost unnoticed brought up a half-century that matched Tino Mawoyo's first 50 in its slowness. The pitch may have remained largely lifeless, but the batsmen will share an equal blame if this match ends in a stalemate. Pakistan still have the chance to breathe life into it on Sunday.