Mitchell: Misbah’s men are on an Aussie mission
Ali Mitchell reports from Australia as Pakistan arrive intent on ending their horror run of Test results Down Under
Australia’s cricketers are switching formats faster than a failing game show this season. They have already gone from a red-ball Test to a pink-ball Test to a One Day International series in the space of 19 days, and this week they revert back to the five-day game to take on Pakistan in the Gabba’s first ever day-night Test.
After Australia’s two dismal defeats at the beginning of the Test series against South Africa, the mood around the national cricket team has lifted following the pink-ball Test match victory in Adelaide and the ODI series win over New Zealand in coloured clothing. If colour is an omen in the team’s change of fortunes then Australia can be glad that the first Test against Pakistan is another pink-ball affair.
Pakistan have a woeful Test record in Australia, having never won a series Down Under. They last managed to level a Test series in 1979, but the Aussies have won the last seven series since. The most recent series (2009, 2004 and 1999) were all three-nil whitewashes to the home side.You have to go as far back as 1995 for Pakistan’s last Test match win in Australia. Even then they had already waved goodbye to the series. They have only played Australia in Brisbane four times, with the last Test 17 years ago. Pakistan have suffered an innings defeat, two ten-wicket defeats and a draw at the Gabba – and the draw was only possible because rain washed out play from lunchtime on day four with Pakistan three wickets down, 271 runs behind on second innings and staring at defeat.
This series could be a lot closer than past records suggest though. Both sides have had turbulent results of late; Australia with the aforementioned recovery in Adelaide, and Pakistan impressing against England last August, but then slumping to series defeats against both the West Indies and, most recently, New Zealand. From leaping to number one in the ICC Test rankings, Pakistan are back down at number four in the world behind India, England and the Australians.
Australia have shown in the last month that they are vulnerable, even at home, and their batsmen are most vulnerable against the moving ball. Pakistan, who have quality exponents of swing and seam bowling in Mohammed Amir, Sohail Khan and Wahab Riaz, should be seeking to capitalise on this. Amir and Khan were the leading wicket-takers in New Zealand with seven scalps across the two Tests they played. Someone like Aussie opener Matt Renshaw, booed for a perceived go-slow when Australia were securing victory in Adelaide, could find much favour if he weathers a tricky session against a new pink ball zipping off a grassy pitch in typically humid conditions. It will only get more challenging under lights.
If conditions (and a recent back problem) allow, Pakistan’s Yasir Shah could also play a huge role as the series goes on. He wasn’t used much in New Zealand, but he is an exceptionally talented leg-spinner, becoming the first since Shane Warne to be ranked the number one bowler in Tests. He took 12 wickets in his debut series two years ago, which just happened to be against Australia in the UAE. Steve Smith will be only too aware that Shah dismissed him three times in four innings.
The counter punch for Pakistan, though, is that their main batsmen are horribly out of form and Australia’s strike bowler Mitchell Starc has shown that he and the pink ball get on rather well. Only one of Pakistan’s batsmen, Babar Azam, averaged more than 31 in the series against New Zealand.
At the age of 22, Azam has been picked out by national coach Mickey Arthur as being as talented as Virat Kohli was at the same age. It is a big call with Azam only having played three Test matches so far but he was the last man standing, unbeaten on 90, when the side was bowled out in the first innings in Hamilton. He shows great promise, as does Australia’s newest middle-order recruit Peter Hanscomb, who announced his arrival with a stylish half century in Adelaide.
Then at the other end of the spectrum, there is still uncertainty as to whether Pakistan’s 42-year-old captain Misbah-ul-Haq will bow out at the end of this series. Last April he said it would likely be his last tour. If it is, he has made it clear he will go quietly with no pre-announcement and no parade of goodbyes at every Test match. An understated departure would match his leadership, the hallmark of which has been calm authority after taking over in the wake of the 2010 spot-fixing scandal. A sense of fun, though, was also evident earlier this year when celebratory public press-ups became a feature of the England tour.
While Misbah continues to prove that age does not have to be a barrier to Test cricket, the weather in Brisbane could yet put a dampener on the idea of day-night matches at the Gabba. The state is well known for its hot and humid conditions and floodlit Test cricket in December poses a unique challenge, recently described by Gabba curator Kevin Mitchell as a gamble. Late afternoon thunderstorms are a familiar feature of November Test cricket at the Gabba and they tend to bring an end to the day’s play.
With the day-night element, the groundstaff will be expected to wait for the rain to pass then immediately try to get it fit for play again. Mitchell told the Australian newspaper, “that’s something new we haven’t experienced before. The ball would certainly dominate in that situation. Generally whenever the stumps go into the ground, we’re going to get an afternoon storm. But when you put on a match in Brisbane in December, you roll the dice.”
In an acknowledgement of the climate, the first Test will start at 1pm, an hour earlier than the pink-ball match in Adelaide, to try to get as much play as possible in the face of likely rain. Last weekend some parts of Queensland experienced soaring temperatures up to 46 degrees and Brisbane was subjected to a ‘super storm’ bringing torrential rain, winds in excess of 100kph and leaving 30,000 homes without power. Players, fans and cricket authorities alike will be crossing their fingers that the only ‘super’ things about the Test match will be the size of the crowd and the competitiveness and quality of the cricket.
Last April, Misbah said this would likely be his last tour. If it is, he has made it clear he will go quietly with no parade of goodbyes
Leader: This could be Misbah-ul-Haq’s last tour after taking the captaincy reins at his country’s lowest ebb