Australia achieved something significant by drawing the first Test against Pakistan but starting today they have a chance to do something truly special – win a Test series in Asia.
Since Australia’s golden era ended a decade ago, they quite incredibly have won just three out of 24 Tests in Asia and, for a long time, were utterly uncompetitive on that continent.
A nadir was reached in 2016 when Australia was thrashed 3-0 by an inexperienced Sri Lankan side which no longer boasted batting stars Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan.
That humiliating defeat seemed to galvanise Australia to improve their dire efforts in Asia, with a fresh focus on preparing thoroughly for these tours.
Last year, before their four-Test series in India, Australia held an intensive training camp at home on pitches specially prepared to behave like turning Asian surfaces, and then did a second camp at ICC headquarters in Dubai.
Then, before this current series against Pakistan, Australia sent half of the XI they fielded in the first Test to India to represent Australia A, before arriving in the UAE to do further preparation.
Australia had gotten used to struggling in Asia. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Suddenly, after years of being roadkill in Asia, Australia are becoming a competitive side in these conditions. Not a good team, but a competitive one. That is as much as they could have hoped for given the extremely low base from which they started after the Sri Lanka debacle, at which point they were on an 11-Test win-less streak in Asia.
Australia began their turnaround in March last year by handing India the only loss they have suffered in their past 30 home Tests. The tourists were actually in a position to win that series half-way through the fourth and final Test, before being overwhelmed by the world’s number one Test team.
Australia then backed that up with a solid display in Bangladesh, where they easily won the second Test and lost by just 20 runs in the first.
Those results, however, were achieved with the help of their two best Test batsmen, Steve Smith and David Warner. Without that pair, and also missing pace stars Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood, Australia were widely expected to be steamrolled by Pakistan in this series.
Few cricket followers would have been surprised when Australia conceded a monstrous 280-run lead at Dubai – they were headed for the sort of thrashing that always seemed likely.
What did provide a shock was the manner in which Australia’s oft-flaky batting lineup refused to wilt, even after they were gutted by the loss of 3-0 early late on day four.
This batting miracle was not engineered by the usual suspects like Smith, Warner or Shaun Marsh, each of whom have produced remarkable Test knocks on foreign soil in the past.
Instead it was the product of bloody-minded graft by Usman Khawaja, a man who had previously laboured overseas, new captain Tim Paine and debutants Travis Head and Aaron Finch.
Australia’s Usman Khawaja (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
That was the second time in their past five Tests in Asia that Australia had willed themselves to a rousing draw. In the third Test in India, Australia were 4-63 still needing to survive another 71 overs to avoid defeat, when Marsh and Peter Handscomb combined to stonewall for 62 overs.
This means that, across their past seven Tests in Asia, Australia have produced four commendable performances – two comprehensive victories and two gritty draws. The latter draw has given this rag-tag Australian side – missing so many key players – the chance to achieve a series win which would have been unthinkable a fortnight ago.
The first step, now, in executing that monumental task is earning some luck with the toss. Abu Dhabi has long been one of the flattest pitches in the world which makes batting first ever-so important, particularly for an Australian side which is so inexperienced.
If they can win the toss and put up a good total in the first innings suddenly Pakistan will be the team which will suffer from the weight of pressure and expectations. It was under this kind of scrutiny that the Australian sides of the past decade so regularly subsided in Asia.
Can they now turn the tables and cause their opponents to crumble? If they do it will rank as one of the most unexpected Test series wins in Australian history.
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