In the Middle East, a contest is all set to build-up and script enough drama…..
Wearing an unsettled look, Pakistan will be gearing up to face their third Test match of the year against Australia, who are coming into the series with lingering problems of their own. Playing the first series after the Sandpaper episode panned out in South Africa, the Kangaroo unit, under captain Tim Paine, are all set to field at least three debutants in the eleven for the first Test match. Sans Steven Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner, Australia will also be missing the services of Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, who are injured, though the return of Mitchell Starc should be good news.
Pakistan though are prone to inconsistency and they would do well to shy away from complacency, especially after a disastrous outing in the Asia Cup, which they had entered as the hands-down favourites. Batting collapses and the inability of the fast-bowling attack to lead the show had triggered unpleasant losses then, and the Sarfaraz Ahmad-led side would be eager to wipe away the disappointment with a good showing in UAE against the Aussies.
The Men from Down Under will not only have to battle the demons on the field, they will also have to quickly adapt to the heat, humidity and the hostile conditions that will be on offer for them. The temperatures in Dubai will not be below 38 degrees on any day, and though the side has been acclimatizing, playing practice games in the searing temperature and an international game in the same is vastly different. Though Mitchell Marsh went on to score 162 runs in the practice match, the host nation refused to field a spinner, which massively indicates how important Yasir Shah is to Pakistan’s plans in the series.
The importance of Yasir Shah
There is doubt that Yasir is one of the best spin bowlers when the conditions are in his favour. With the UAE tracks keeping low and slow, much will be expected from him. The player will play his first match of the year after he had missed the series against England due to a hip surgery, and Yasir would be eager to make a triumphant return to Test cricket.
The fastest Pakistani bowler to 50 wickets now has 165 in 28 matches, and the Aussies would be on their toes against him. The last time the two nations met in UAE, Yasir ran away with 12 wickets at a stunning average of 17.13 and his overall tally in the Emirates stands at 79 wickets from 12 Tests. With three of the top seven from Australia being new faces, the spinner will fancy his chances, though his recent display in domestic cricket indicates that are issues with what he is waiting to serve.
Across two List A and two First-Class games, Yasir picked up just 2 wickets and went for 210 runs in the process. As was witnessed in the groin injury to Ravichandran Ashwin in the series against England, any lower body injury to a spinner could affect the revolutions they take before delivering the ball, which could haunt the Pakistani as well. Yasir had injured his hip during Pakistan’s tour to England and unless he has recuperated fully, the force and power of his revolutions could be massively affected, thus hampering his bowling style.
If he is fit, he should however be a player to watch out for.
The batting line-up will rotate around the senior players
The batting line-up will be led by Azhar Ali, who has notched up more than 5,000 runs in 65 Tests, including a triple ton, at an average of almost 45. The player is a tremendous opening batter, with a near-perfect technique and will once again hold the reigns of success. Though he did not flourish as much as he would have desired in the tour of England, he is massively talented and could prove to be dangerous on Days 2 and 3 on the flat surfaces that are likely to be dished out for the series.
The onus will be on Starc to send back the opener early and he would hope that Peter Siddle can apply pressure on him from the other end as well. If the two new-ball openers fail to latch on to Ali upfront, it will not be a surprise if he goes on to get a daddy hundred, as once the spinners come into play, there will be no stopping the cricketer.
While Nathan Lyon was massively successful in India last year, Ali is the kind of batsman who can nullify all spin threats that are thrown towards him once he has set. With Jon Holland not a big turner of the ball either, it will be imperative that the new ball bowlers ruffle some feathers early on, though the presence of Mohammad Hafeez alongside Ali will not make the task any easier.
The player is returning to the national fold after scoring a double hundred in domestic cricket last week, and has been piling on runs by the dozens. With Sarfaraz down the order, capable of turning the match on its head at any moment, the Pakistan top-order has a steady combination of experience and youth, which will be led by Babar Azam, Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq. With Asad Shafiq tying the batting unit together, Pakistan is equipped with a dangerous line-up, and if the openers can evade the first 10 overs that will be bowled by Starc and Siddle, they will well be en route a match-winning total.
The fast bowlers would aim to scalp the inexperienced Australians
Even before Yasir comes into the attack, the responsibility will lie on Mohammad Abbas and possibly Mir Hamza to create ripples in the unrecognized and inexperienced Aussie batting order. Aaron Finch is a proven dangerous batter in LOIs but whether he can handle the nerves in his maiden outing in the whites remains to be seen. Even in Shield cricket, he has played in the middle order and his skills to handle the pace of the rival bowlers when the wicket is still new will be a major challenge.
Usman Khawaja’s woes against spin is no secret and the player, who despite umpteen chances has been unable to make a mark, would be eager to cash in on the first few overs before the spin of Yasir is unleashed.
The threats that will come their way
Knowing Pakistan, unpredictability is their biggest nemesis. Though Australia have a number of issues that are plaguing them, it can all pan out perfectly if Finch brings his counter-attacking game to the fore against the new ball. If he can mount up some quick runs and evade the faster bowlers, Finch, who is a great player of spin, can make an impressive debut.
The Marsh brothers too are in outstanding form, with Mitch scoring an unbeaten century against Pakistan A and Shaun navigating through spin well.
The injury to Shadab Khan and the inexperienced middle-order can come back to haunt the Pakistani side, but if they stick to their potential and not commit harakiri as they had during the Asia Cup, a series win will be theirs for the taking.