After a six-month hiatus, the Australian team will be back playing Test cricket as they travel to the United Arab Emirates for a tough two-Test series against Pakistan.
While all the focus is rightly on the Australian team heading into the series, their opponents are less than settled and it’s shaping up as an intriguing battle between the two sides.
» Paine confirms three debutants for first Test
Of course, it’s hard to look past the new-look Australian side who haven’t played a Test match since the ball-tampering debacle in South Africa.
As has been all too well publicised since that crazy day in the rainbow nation, Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner have been suspended. Joining them on the couch in Australia are Patrick Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, meaning the tourists head into a hostile environment without five of their best players.
Having passed up an opportunity to host Bangladesh during the winter, which seems mad now, Australia goes in having only played a handful of one-day and T20 matches since their failed Test tour to South Africa.
Those matches didn’t bring a rip-roaring amount of success either. Smashed by England in a canter, before they motored on over to Zimbabwe and lost to Pakistan in the final of a T20 tri-series.
While that won’t be living in the memory banks of the players, a series win is a series win and Pakistan takes whatever edge that will bring into this series.
It seems every time the Aussies embark on a tour to a spin-friendly country, the same questions surface. On top of the inexperienced squad, they have to deal with heat, humidity and hostile conditions. The temperature isn’t forecast to be below 36 degrees Celsius on any day of the match in Dubai, which will create a challenge in itself, even if the Aussies have been acclimatising.
Australia did prepare well for the match though, with Mitch Marsh scoring an unbeaten century against Pakistan A, Travis Head getting amongst the runs and both Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland bowling well.
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
The only blight was the lack of a spin option to face, with the host nation refusing to provide one.
Pakistan aren’t without their own questions. They have only played two Tests this year, with both coming away from home against England. They drew that series one-all, and while the squad remains largely the same, there are changes, with the side sensationally dropping Mohammed Amir.
The veteran quick has been dropped and, having named a 17-man squad, there is a lot of uncertainty about which XI will go into the first Test.
While the series in England was something of a success and a 5-0 drubbing of Zimbabwe in an ODI series was also solid, it’s a little uncertain where the team’s mentality may be after a tough Asian Cup campaign which ended in the group stage.
Overall record: Played 62, Australia 31, Pakistan 14, draw 17
Overall record in UAE: Played 4, Pakistan 2, Australia 2
Overall series record: Played 22, Australia 12, Pakistan 6, drawn 4
Series in UAE: Played 2, Pakistan 1, Australia 1
Last five matches
January 3-7, 2017: Australia defeat Pakistan by 220 runs at SCG, Sydney
December 26-30, 2016: Australia defeat Pakistan by an innings and 18 runs at MCG, Melbourne
October 30 – November 3, 2014: Pakistan defeat Australia by 356 runs at Abu Dhabi Stadium
October 22 – 26, 2014: Pakistan defeat Australia by 221 runs at Dubai International Stadium, Dubai
December 15-19, 2016: Australia defeat Pakistan by 39 runs at Gabba, Brisbane
2016-17: Australia defeated Pakistan 3-0 in Australia
2014: Pakistan defeated Australia 2-0 in United Arab Emirates
2010: Australia drew with Pakistan 1-1 in England
2009-10: Australia defeated Pakistan 3-0 in Australia
2004-05: Australia defeated Pakistan 3-0 in Australia
2002-03: Australia defeated Pakistan 3-0 in Sri Lanka and United Arab Emirates
1. Azhar Ali
2. Mohammad Hafeez
3. Babar Azam
5. Fakhar Zaman
6. Asad Shafiq
7. Sarfraz Ahmed (c), (wk)
8. Yasir Shah
9. Bilal Asif
10. Mir Hamza
11. Mohammad Abbas
Rest of squad – Hasan Ali, Haris Sohail, Usman Salahuddin, Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Rizwan
The biggest news out of the Pakistan camp is the dropping of Amir. The make-up of the Pakistan attack is an intriguing one, with Mohammad Abbas guaranteed to play as one of the quicks.
Whether they play three spinners or two quicks still remains to be seen. If they go for a second quick, it’ll either be the re-called Wahab Riaz or debutant Mir Hamza, who has been impressive and I expect to play.
Yasir Shah will play his first Test for the year after missing the England tour with hip surgery, while they will mix up the attack by playing off-spinner Bilal Asif ahead of Shadab Khan.
At the top of the order, Mohammad Hafeez is expected to get a recall, while Azhar Ali and Babar Azam will continue their run-scoring ways. Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhaw Zaman and Asad Shafiq – who is a lock for number six should also play. Ul-Haq and Zaman aren’t locks and could easily find themselves on the outside looking in when the team sheets are exchanged at toss time.
1. Aaron Finch
2. Usman Khawaja
3. Shaun Marsh
4. Travis Head
5. Marnus Labuschagne
6. Mitch Marsh (vc)
7. Tim Paine (c), (wk)
8. Mitchell Starc
9. Peter Siddle
10. Jon Holland
11. Nathan Lyon
Rest of squad – Ashton Agar, Brendan Doggett, Michael Neser, Matthew Renshaw
As mentioned above, this is a new-look Australian side without five of what would have formerly been considered their best XI.
Add to that, Matt Renshaw is now unlikely to play after suffering a concussion which continued to his lack of match practice, and this is a barely recognisable side.
In his absence, Aaron Finch is likely to open. Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja could have been tried in tandem, but it’s thought one will be held back, and the better option to open will be Khawaja as he tried to get himself in before the spinners come on and bring back old demons.
Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne are also set to debut in the middle order, before new vice-captain Mitchell Marsh, captain Tim Paine and opening bowler Mitchell Starc bring some familiarity to the side.
Peter Siddle will make his return, although appears to be battling for the final spot with a potential fourth debutant in Michael Neser, while playing two spinners seems a no-brainer. Jon Holland played excellently in the tour match and should hold off Ashton Agar for the gig.
How will Yasir Shah go?
If the answer to this question is ‘good,’ Pakistan probably win the series.
There is no question Yasir is one of the best spin bowlers in the world when in favourable conditions and his record speaks for itself.
While he has had some not so great moments, he was the fastest Pakistani bowler to 50 wickets and now has 165 in 28 Tests. Returning from injury is never an easy thing to do though and his domestic form in two List A and two first class matches suggests there are problems with what he is serving up.
Across those matches, Yasir has taken just two wickets, going for 210 runs in the process.
The problem with a hip injury for a leg-spinner is that so much force and so many revolutions are generated by the power in that final step at the crease, so if he doesn’t have that, he won’t have a lot of what’s made him successful.
He won’t be the make or break for Pakistan, but if Yasir is firing, they are incredibly hard to beat at home, as many teams have found out over his 28-Test career.
(AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
The battle of the keepers will be pivotal
Tim Paine and Sarfraz Ahmed. It’s rare you get two keepers both captaining their countries on the same field, but that’s exactly what we have heading into this two-Test series.
Paine has a monumental task in front of him. Few Australian captains have been successful anywhere on the sub-continent in the energy-sapping, spin-friendly conditions, and Paine’s battle is even more uphill than most.
His squad is inexperienced, his team has more questions surrounding than any since World Series Cricket and he himself will need to stand up with the bat.
Tactics in the field will be crucial. Paine musn’t be afraid to try something unorthodox, but he must do so before it’s too late. Waiting until the Aussies have been in the field for 120 overs will be too late. If Australia are to win the series, Paine has to be on the front foot, trying things from the get-go and not allow the game to get away, with Pakistan batting them out of it.
Sarfraz, on the other hand, is a dynamic player who can take the game away.
His captaincy still needs work, having only taken over from Misbah-Ul-Haq in recent times. The tactics Pakistan use in crushing Australia, declaring at the right times and employing the right level of aggression will be scrutinized from every angle, and simply put, Ahmed must get them right to now allow Australia a chance to get back into it if they find themselves on the back foot.
Of course, the toss will also be crucial.
Australia needed more variation in the spin stocks to win this tour
The biggest problem with Australia’s bowling attack is their lack of spin options.
Holland provides something a little different to Lyon being a left-hander, but a player to match Yasir would be ideal. Someone to bowl leg spin with the best of them and get the ball ripping.
Neither Lyon or Holland are outrageous turners of the ball unless the conditions are conducive to doing so, and while both Lyon and Holland will do a decent job of tying down and end and restricting the runs, it’s not what Australia are going to need.
They need a risk-taker – someone to get in there and provide something a little different. You’d prefer one of your spinners taking 5 for 80 rather than both ending up with 2 for 100 off 40 overs.
There probably isn’t an answer in the current Australian cricket set-up. Maybe Mitch Swepson, who was probably unlucky to miss the tour in the first place, but they are going to need a lot working for them. Two finger spinners with the only difference being right and left-handed won’t have the Pakistani middle order quaking in their boots, that’s for sure.
(AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)
Where are the runs coming from for the tourists?
This is the biggest problem for Australia.
They are going to carry three debutants into their top-seven, a man who has never handled spin in Asia (or anywhere outside Australia, frankly), a keeper and captain who hasn’t been picked for his batting and an all-rounder who, while in form, still hasn’t completely turned the corner on his career.
Handling the debutants first and it’s worse than it appears on paper.
Aaron Finch has made his name as a limited-overs batsman at the top of the order, but in Shield cricket, he has generally batted in the middle order. Not wanting to put both Marsh and Khawaja at the top means he is likely to open, and the chance of a big score seem slim.
Finch may actually hold the key though. A fast start against the new ball is crucial in conditions where it will spin early, so if Finch can get away to a good start, he is a good enough player of spin to lock down after that and it could prove a masterstroke.
Head is another player known for his limited-overs skills, although has shown some good form, while Labuschagne deserves his call-up, wasn’t in the first choice XI before Renshaw’s woes.
One of the debutants – maybe more – need to stand up for Australia to be competitive, as does Khawaja, who can’t afford to be brought undone by spin yet again.
The Marsh brothers seem the best chances of big scores though. Mitch was outstanding during the tour game, and Shaun is a solid player of spin. While he has never fullfilled his potential on the big stage, this could be the tour where he sets himself apart from what has been a tough career at times.
Australia must get Azhar Ali with the new ball
You don’t score a Test match triple-century or average nearly 45, scoring over 5000 runs by fluke or chance.
Azhar Ali is a very good opening batsman and has been doing the job for his nation ever since he debuted.
He hasn’t been making a killing of it in country cricket or on Pakistan’s tour of England this year, but he still has the talent and skill to rack up big scores, and is a very dangerous player on the flat tracks across Day 2 and 3 likely to be seen in the UAE’s sub-continental conditions.
Simply put, if Australia don’t get Ali early, they will be relying on him making a mistake, unless of course it’s the second innings and the pitch is doing all sorts of weird things.
Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland, while good bowlers, won’t get Ali once he is set by good bowling. Azhar has proven time and time again he can rack up runs in these conditions batting against spin.
It’s up to Mitchell Starc to rattle him early and hope the pressure applied from the other end by Siddle is enough to get rid of the gun opener.
(AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
Pakistan are always hard to beat in these conditions. With Australia having three, maybe four debutants and a wealth of inexperience, as well as plenty of obvious problems in their XI, the chances of them winning seem a little on the slim side.
So long as Pakistan play to their potential, Yasir goes well and the batting combination of Sarfraz and Azhar lead from the front with a few other valuable contributions, they should take a 1-0 lead out of Dubai.
Pakistan to take a 1-0 lead.
Dates: Sunday October 7 – Thursday October 11
First ball: 5pm (AEST)
Venue: Dubai International Stadium
TV: Live, Fox Cricket 501
Online: Live, Foxtel app, Foxtel now
Betting: Pakistan $2.10, Australia $2.75, draw $4.50
Umpires: Richard Illingworth, Richard Kettleborough
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