Lost in space – one step forward, four steps back for Pakistan

If the test series between Australia and Pakistan was a smiling contest, the tourists would have won it in a canter.

But smile as they did, only the herculean efforts of a few individuals across the course of a nightmare series left them bearing their pearly whites on the final day of the Sydney test.

There was more to grimace about than anything else when Josh Hazlewood took the final wicket to dismiss Pakistan in the very same disappointing fashion as the second innings in Melbourne and Hamilton.

The three game changing collapses they suffered across the tour cost them in the long run and will have left them with their heads spinning like a carousel. One of the leading side-effects to touring Australia.

david-warner-deccan-chronicle
Australian opener David Warner celebrating a hundred during the first innings of the Sydney test. Picture – Deccan Chronicle.

The momentum they carried over from a successful tour of England – in one of their toughest road trips since they set up home base in the UAE – came to a grinding halt in New Zealand where their batting failed to cope with the unpredictability of the local wickets.

But the fire that was lit against the poms by their ageing warriors has been extinguished by father time and the Australian doldrums which have tripped up many an ageing batsman in the past.

Misbah’s fearless leadership during the most turbid and uncertain of times for Pakistan cricket makes him a gladiator of the modern game and one of the finest to ever pull on the green and yellow threads.

He drowned out the ever present distractions – spot-fixing scandals and the ineptitude of a corrupt board – through an iron will to show the world that Pakistan are far from the fallen giants they are often made out to be. All the while, staying true to himself and his roots.

Both with bat and in front of the press he exuded a calmness that would have made the most nervous debutante stand to attention.

But the man who is responsible for returning Pakistan to number one in the world would be lucky to get picked out at a set of traffic lights in Lahore by a passing motorist, such is the state of cricket in Pakistan and the fact that home is no longer where the heart is.

And he must now make a call on whether the time is right for him to pass the baton onto the next in line or maintain the legacy that has seen Pakistan make an unprecedented resurgence.

A whitewash never reflects well on the captain, no matter how much success he’s had in the past or whether he still has the backing of the dressing room.

Ricky Ponting’s leadership was rarely questioned, but when the bullets began flying from all angles he eventually surrendered and recognised that the captaincy had passed him by.

This series loss would be as difficult to stomach as any for Misbah, just as that 2010/11 Ashes series was for Ponting. Not because of the fashion in which it was lost, but for the heavy lifting that now must be had to prevent the Pakistan test side from sliding back down the world rankings.

And the lifting process is almost certain to leave a few with aching backs and put the odd nose out of joint.

There were flashpoints – the near historic win at the Gabba and Azhar Ali’s unbeaten double century on the biggest stage of all. But for all the positives Pakistan can take with them there are three negatives to cancel them out.

Yasir Shah, Pakistan’s key weapon, was used as poorly as an old dishrag and the fields that were set never allowed for him to prosper, let alone create pressure to bore the Australian batsmen out.

He’s the finest leg-spin bowler in the world but a tradesman is only as good as his tools.

Pakistan’s fast bowlers are some of the most highly qualified in the game but tacticians they are not.

Peter Handscomb had a field day against the all left-arm seam attack at the Gabba, and followed it up in Melbourne and Sydney to finish with a Bradman-esque average.

yasir-shah-always-smiling
The smiling assassin Yasir Shah. Or is that Lionel Messi?

Mohammad Amir may have taken out the award for most dramatic fielding effort when his knee plugged in the Gabba outfield, but the collective sighs of astonishment from Pakistan’s fielders as Handscomb carved yet another back foot punch behind point for four comes in at a close second.

Take one look at Handscomb’s wagon wheel’s and you can see that the region from backward point to third man was favoured heavily.

But Pakistan’s bowlers never adjusted, never came around the wicket to change the angle or plug up gaps to begin executing a plan B. Or maybe they did but it was too little too late by the time they came to their senses.

Any bowling side that allows an opposition player to chalk up a chance-less hundred inside a session must have their tactical nous questioned. Even if Warner’s brilliance on the day was enough to dismantle any attack the world over.

They were as helpless and similarly nonreactive in the face of a loss as any side to tour Australia in the recent past.

India made excuses for their performance until there was nothing left to complain about. New Zealand challenged but fell well short last year. And the West Indies failed to compete.

Only the South Africans have been able to leave Australia in a state of flux on home soil.

Where Pakistan ranks among these most recent visitors is difficult to tell because it was a series filled with so many contrasting emotions and performances.

One day people were questioning whether they had sent their A team. The next they looked more skillful and proficient than the Harlem Globetrotters.

Hottest ticket in town: how the Brisbane Heat have become fan favourites

We’ve reached the halfway mark of BBL six. The Brisbane Heat are top of the pops and the support from their fans is following suit. Like any great franchise with adequate financial support and exposure to a thriving sports market, success equals greater interest and that is exactly what the Heat have achieved this season.

Lynn and McCullum, coined the ‘Bash Brothers’ for their unique six-hitting ability and the game-breaking partnerships they have, will be separated in the coming week which will see some of the Heat’s young guns vie for a position. Reardon, Heazlett, Labuschagne and Doolan are all in line for the number three spot to be vacated by Lynn this Wednesday night when the Heat take on the Scorchers at the Gabba.

Lynn’s departure from the Heat to join the ODI squad has come as a shock to none given his scores this season which included a remarkable, game winning knock against the Sydney Thunder. He’s given the Heat the spark they needed to show the competition they are capable of mixing it with the marquee clubs, while McCullum’s experience alongside Peirson at the top of the order has proven the difference between the mediocre totals they were able to produce last year in his absence, and the big runs they’ve racked up in BBL|06.

There is no question that these two players, and the feats they achieve on a game by game basis without fail, put bums on seats at the Gabba. Their ability to clear the ropes more often than many of their peers is considered a desirable quality among modern viewers who would rather sit on their porch and watch paint dry than buy a ticket to a six hour day of test match cricket. In many ways we should be concerned that the oldest form of the game is being viewed in this way, but if t20 is the format keeping cricket afloat in this country, we must embrace the change and let it blossom like a flower in the sunlight and never let it whither.

The loss of a major player can often turn many fans away from heading to the ground to see their team in the flesh. It may also cause them to think twice about their chances of making the Americanised “play-off” stage and then the “Big Final”. But the Heat are quickly rising to prominence and are now a sporting brand as popular as the Brisbane Lions who, for five short years, were the indisputable rulers of the supporter base roost in Brisbane.

The Big Bash’s positioning during the school holidays, which has allowed adults to bring along their child to the cricket to see their heroes in action with the promise of a party-like atmosphere in-between, has been the biggest contributor to the Heat’s popularity and has sent crowd figures through the roof. The fact that a supporter can now ride the highs and lows of their side through an entire season on terrestrial television, unlike the other major sporting codes in Australia where fans may go weeks without seeing their team play if they don’t have access to pay TV, has inspired a generation and created a product whose narrative is easy to follow.

When word was released by the major newspaper chains that tickets to their opening home game were being scalped through online dealers, cricket and the Heat brand had officially reached its peak. Only the Lions during their pomp saw fans take more drastic measures to get their hands on the hottest ticket in town.

image
The Brisbane Heat’s first home game against the Hobart Hurricanes in front of 36,000 fans

Such was their dominance at the time, the demand for tickets meant the beating heart of the Lions and the Gabba was moved off site for the sake of 5,000 seats, raising the capacity to 42,000. But the Brisbane Lions haven’t experienced the same success since and the Gabba has gone unfilled for the majority of the last decade. Even the test matches hosted in Brisbane, including the recently concluded day/ night phenomenon, have failed to pack out the Gabba in the same way the Heat do. Perhaps this says more about the format and the league than the team. But it is difficult to argue that the Heat, and the brand it has created, is not at least a factor in the continued support from the Brisbane public.

The domestic cricket crowd records at the Gabba have been smashed since the Heat came into existence six years ago and if they continue their exciting style of play more will be set. Only the Sheffield Shield final of 1994/95, which saw AB captain Queensland to their first title in front of a boisterous and die-hard-filled crowd in the days before the Gabba was turned into a concrete amphitheater, would be a bigger moment in the history of Queensland cricket. The success the Shield side experienced during 2011 and 2012, which culminated in a home final at the Gabba, were sparsely attended and are now barely remembered thanks to t20 cricket. But if the Heat make it all the way to the final in late January – pending performance, injury and the myriad variables which all play a role in how far a side can prolong its campaign – fans will flock to the ticket gates, members will race to grab the most prized seats in the house and the Gabba will see crowd numbers eclipse 40,000 for the first time since the grandstands were built.

It’s difficult to think that AB and his boys wouldn’t have attracted a sizable crowd had the stands been built during the nineties. There was no t20 to compete with, domestic cricket had a spiking pulse and corporate greed wasn’t taking the game to the brink of extinction like it is today. Being at the Gabba when AB raced around the outfield with the Shield held aloft will forever be the most cherished moment in Queensland cricket’s history. It may even be the most memorable at the Gabba. But there is no doubting that the atmosphere inside the ground if the Heat were to make a Big Bash final this year, or in the future, would give the larrikans who populated the Gabba hill on the final day of the 1994/95 Sheffield Shield final a run for their money in the prestige stakes. “I was their when the Bulls won their first Shield” might be a more revered statement than “I saw the Heat take out the Big Bash title” for the time being. But with the BBL continuing to grow in popularity on a worldwide scale, the ignorance of the t20 minded follower may drown out the voices of those who believe winning a Shield is the pinnacle of domestic cricket in Australia. Particularly when you consider which would receive greater media coverage.

Brendan McCullum may be hoisting a nondescript trophy with little historical relevance on the very same patch of grass that AB received that all important Shield 22 years ago, and there are question marks over which will hold greater importance to the average fan. It’s an interesting thought that the memories of that final may fade from history with the patrons who hold onto them as a result of the popularity of a format that wasn’t even conceived when the game that defined cricket in Queensland was played. But we must roll with the times and if t20 cricket titles, played in a Baseball style league, are held in higher regard than a Sheffield Shield crown, than this is a sad reality that Australian cricket must face. Even if these monumental shifts in focus spell trouble for the future successes of the Australian test side.

2016 Christmas Review – Australia’s roller-coaster year and other musings on the game

It’s that time of year once again where we must take stock of the past 12 months and look forward with renewed optimism to 2017 and the challenges that lie ahead.

Australia have had a relatively unsuccessful year across all three formats and next season – which includes a home Ashes series, a tour to India and a Champions Trophy in England – doesn’t look like giving them any respite whatsoever. Smith, Warner and Khawaja have been at their usual best while the rest of the side is almost unrecognisable when compared to the XI from this time last year. As I’ve written about extensively in these pages over the past 12 months, Australia is in the middle of a transitionary phase and we must embrace every change no matter how mind boggling and unjustified they may seem at first. It had to happen eventually, and 2016 will forever be remembered as the year it did, which isn’t so bad when you consider that it occurred at the end of a three-match test series against South Africa, and not three games into an Ashes series played in England. The outpouring of grief would have been far worse and the series far longer had they occurred in these circumstances, I’m sure.

We’ve seen two players come out of this changing of the guard who are more than capable of forging long and prosperous careers at test level and another who couldn’t find it within him to convert his first-class form into a glimmer of hope at test level, but will almost certainly find his way back into the Baggy Green in future. That being said, the real test will lie in India where they’ve probably not toured before and will be unsure of what to expect. Ashwin is the gift that keeps on giving and the form he’s shown this year verges on superhuman. Australia don’t have the batting depth nor the experience to score match winning/saving totals when Ashwin is let loose on the bunsen burners that will be requested by the Indian side. Let’s not pretend that we do. When half the side hasn’t yet played a test match in the sub-continent, expecting Australia to win is like backing a group four horse against Black Caviar during her pomp. A victory is nigh on an impossibility.

Sri Lanka hurt Australia’s hopes of returning to where they were and what they achieved for a brief period under Ricky Ponting’s guidance in the sub-continent a few years back and the players that are left from the last tour to India four years ago – and there are very few – wouldn’t have the fondest memories, nor a burning desire to return to the scene of their mauling on similar terms.

England showed fight in India, at times, but they have a more established and settled side than Australia and still couldn’t put together a complete, match-winning performance. This is a danger sign that must be heeded. What state Australia will be in at the conclusion of a four-test series that could feel like a 10 kilometer marathon for the players is anyone’s guess. But the pessimist in me says more reshuffling is on the horizon.

This has gone away from the point a little, though, and I’m probably looking too far ahead given there is still two crucial games to play in the test series against Pakistan and a mountain of one-day cricket, at home and away, to get through before India should even be considered.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the trend-setting BBL as it is without a doubt, as my piece yesterday confirmed, the cricketing equivalent of the Mardi Gras festivities and has major implications for the future of cricket, and sport at large, in this country. From the five games I’ve seen so far, the Renegades and Hurricanes look to be the front runners while the Heat, with their strong top order bolstered by NZ’s Brendon McCullum, are the quiet achievers that will sneak up on the marquee clubs and challenge for the crown.

The Renegades didn’t win a single game at their home ground last year and it was this statistic that probably cost them a spot in the finals. They romped to victory over the Thunder at Etihad two nights ago to break this hoodoo and start the ball rolling. How they manage when they lose Aaron Finch and his other henchmen to the Australian ODI side will dictate how deep they go in this tournament.

Hobart haven’t experienced great success across the five years of this competition to date but looked like genuine contenders yesterday afternoon at the SCG. Hobart’s top order – Paine, Short, Sangakkara and Bailey – are the key’s to their success and will make the final if they can bat in the very same fashion as last night. Paine and Short sparked the fire at the top and it was continued by starts from each of the remaining batsman, allowing them to pass 200 – a score that is barely chaseable in the shortest form unless the opposition gets off to a flier in the powerplay. In Tait they have an experienced and wily fast-bowler with a knack for taking wickets at regular intervals. He is more important to this Hurricanes side than many would have you think.

It is such a difficult tournament to predict, the BBL, because the very nature of t20 cricket can swing momentum against a side that is seemingly ahead in the game, while the margin between a sides best and worst performances are generally world’s apart from one day to the next because of these small, yet influential, moments. Test and One-Day cricket cannot be decided by an over or a single wicket. But t20 most certainly can. We’ve already seen evidence of this in the opening round of the BBL. Hobart are a side without too many Australian representatives and will hence go without interruptions for the entire season. But again, a lot rides on ‘the Wild Thing’ Tait and their experienced batting line-up to chip in each game.

There are also a number of rule changes set to make their mark in 2017 and it will be interesting to see what differences, if any, they make to the ever-evolving shape of cricket. The monitoring and policing of bat width, size and depth is a major change from the MCC who have remained steadfast in their approach to the farcical bat size debate for some time. I doubt it will make much difference if these restrictions do come into effect, however, as the reduction of width to 35mm will still allow players to clear the ropes as often and as far as has become the norm. But could we see the miss-hits, that so often sail for six, be caught by the boundary sweepers? It would make the death overs in the shorter forms a far more interesting phenomenon.

We wouldn’t see, however, the kind of unrestrained late innings assaults from the likes of AB De Villiers and MS Dhoni that have given one-day and t20 cricket a significant fan base. The game deserves a form of balance between bat and ball, there is no question. But we must tread carefully if we wish to see a continuation of the current shots that bring about big sixes and scores of over 200 in the shorter formats. These are, after all, what brings the fans to the ticket booths. If players start to question their ability to clear the fielders patrolling the fence and cease playing these strokes out of fear for loosing their wicket, there will be a worldwide change in mindset and a major shift in how to approach an innings. T20 cricket would be but a shadow of its former self and interest would follow suit as a direct result. The shorter forms are designed to accommodate big hitting and the excitement. Let the bats remain as they are now.

Without further ado, here is the best Australian XI for 2016. Players have been selected from all three formats (I feel like this shakes things up a bit more) based on the following criteria:

  • Performance (Runs, wickets, catches). Game situation has been considered.
  • Consistency (how often has the player made a contribution in a winning side).
  1. David Warner (ODI, Test, T20). Had another outstanding year with the bat in all formats and is quickly becoming one of Australia’s finest opening batsmen. Much rides on whether he sets the tone during the opening test matches of the bigger series against India and England. Has a big role to play in developing his young partner Matt Renshaw who he must guide through the minefield that is the Indian tour and Ashes.
  2. Aaron Finch (ODI, T20). Comes in at the top of the order due to the axing of the inconsistent Joe Burns and injury to Shaun Marsh. Is well down on form in the ODI format and hasn’t produced the fireworks that we’ve come to expect in the t20 arena which has seen him without a game since the beginning of the WT20. Still, due to a lack of options, he earns his spot atop the batting order in Australia’s best XI for 2016.
  3. Usman Khawaja (Test, T20, ODI). Struggled in Sri Lanka and has a big job on his hands in India where he was dropped by then coach Mickey Arthur for misbehavior. Is achieving Bradman-esque feats on home soil and was a match winner in the series against the West Indies (January 2016) and New Zealand (February/ March 2016). Might stake his claim for re-selection in the ODI squad later this summer if his Test form continues.
  4. Steven Smith (Test, ODI, T20). Is under a bit of pressure to perform as captain following a close call in Brisbane but has shown that he is Australia’s most indispensable man with the bat. The fact he couldn’t lead his side to gain the all-elusive WT20 crown, and his recklessness at times during the Sri Lankan tour, are the only marks that can go against his name. His one-day form is crucial going into a year that includes the Champions Trophy.

The final seven will be posted in the days leading up to the new year. The crick-eter of the year award will be unveiled during this time as well. For now though, Merry Christmas. I wish you all many happy returns in 2017.

Here are some of the photos I took during 2016. I’ve no doubt you would have seen some of these before, but they are here again for your viewing pleasure with slight variations to the filters.

image
Ok, this one is from 2015, but I thought it was the ideal photo to begin the gallery. Australia v New Zealand 2015 – first test. 
image
This one is also from 2015. Australia v New Zealand – first test – Brisbane.
image
Queensland in the nets ahead of their Day/ Night shield clash with NSW in round one 2016.
image
Fans outside the nets watch on as the players prepare for day two. Australia v Pakistan.
image
A panorama of the Gabba during the evening session of the test match between Australia and Pakistan.
image
A grainy photo of Starc delivering to one of the Pakistan openers on Day two at the Gabba.
image
The Gabba at tea on day two – Australia v Pakistan
image
Night descends on the Gabba for the first time in the history of test cricket at the ground. Australia v Pakistan.

 

 

 

Feel free to post your team of the year in the comments section below.

 

Pakistan depart Gabba with ascendancy despite loss

Australia have plenty to ponder over their Christmas lunches having fought back from the brink of defeat in what was almost one of the great test match robberies.

Pakistan’s efforts on day one and two left many, including myself, wondering what they would be able to take away from this series, and in how many days Australia would romp to victory. But the resilience they showed with the bat in a remarkable turnaround that stunned the punters has given them all the momentum they need to take out the Melbourne and Sydney test matches.

Before they reached our shores, Pakistan where notorious for their dogged determination, willingness to win the scrap and ability to steal back the ascendancy like thieves in the night. They lived up to those expectations with a performance that showed the world why they are the sleeping giants not to be taken lightly, even if they haven’t played a test on their home patch for seven years.

img_1561
The Gabba at night on Day One

They’ve left Australia to walk away with a win that is barely palatable and will have them thinking about the pre-planed tactics they employed and their relative ineffectiveness in bringing about false shots on a regular basis. If anything, Pakistan have taken more away from this test match than the Australian’s who waltzed into the Gabba like a pack of hungry lions expecting to rip their pray to shreds without a fight. At the completion of the first innings, they were well within their rights to assume that the game would pan out in such a manner, but their complacency gave Pakistan’s underrated batsmen a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel that they fell agonisingly short of making a tangible reality. 39 runs short in fact.

Opponents should beware. If you give Pakistan an inch, they will take a mile. How the game was allowed to shift from a forgone conclusion to a nail-biting game for the ages is a concern in itself and shows how vulnerable an outfit Australia are at the moment, and how 2017 could quickly become their worst year in over a decade. A bumpy road awaits filled with multiple twists, turns and speed humps that could result in unfavourable results that eclipse the humiliation of their thrashing in Hobart and the fallout that followed. The vastly improved Bangladesh shapes as a danger-filled series, while the Ashes at the beginning of next summer will be the ideal yardstick to judge Australia’s positioning amongst the world’s elite.

Starc, Hazlewood and Bird are world class fast bowlers who posses unrivalled qualities, while Lyon is a long-underapreciated spinner who still has plenty to offer the Australian side at home and in the sub-continent. But their inability to bowl sides out in the final innings of a game is a reoccurring theme that will not only put more pressure on the batsmen to amass a large first innings score, but also force them to bowl injury inducing excess overs. Australia’s fresh faced batting line-up relies greatly upon its bowlers to keep the opposition’s totals to a minimum in order to make their job a great deal easier. And this will only be accentuated when they reach India in February.

Their first innings performance against Pakistan was the equivalent of a cricketing symphony. But they lacked potency in the second dig and bowled far too many deliveries that enabled Pakistan’s seasoned batsmen to fill their boots. When Starc wasn’t busy delivering a barrage of bouncers, which worked on the odd occasion but yielded few wickets when compared to the number of deliveries bowled short, Hazlewood was over-pitching and allowing Pakistan to play to their strengths. The UAE is home to some of the slowest and lowest wickets in the world and batsmen local to these regions are natural born drivers. Anything pitched on a half volley length is money for jam.

Jackson Bird delivered the timely knock out blows that rendered Pakistan’s run chase moot, and his presence provides the calming influence that frustrates opposition batsmen into rash strokes making him the perfect foil for Starc and Hazlewood.

His unerring ability to put the ball on a troubling length and make it seam is an indispensable value that will be required when Australia visit South Africa and England. But the career clock is ticking and he has a host of younger bowlers like Pat Cummins, Jason Behrendorff and current squad member Chadd Sayers breathing down his neck. Will he still be around beyond the end of this series? Or will his time be up by the Sydney test.

Australia v Pakistan, first test, day three – Pakistan falter…again

If Pakistan still held aspirations of winning this test match at the beggining of the third days play, they needed to avoid making the same mistakes as the first innings. That they did, at least for brief periods in a checkerboard pattern that barely resembled an improvement at all. There were glimpses of what Pakistan are capable of, but some old habits reappeared and they were there for all to see once again on what was likely the test’s penultimate day.

Sarfraz Ahmed made a bright and breezy start to the day alongside the sport-fixer turned actor Mohammad Amir, but even his shot selection was questionable at times and it looked as if he was just a streaky shot away from losing his wicket for much of his innings. “That’s the way he plays” the commentators quipped, but there is a distinct difference between busy and reckless, and many of shots that evaded the fielders by a finger-nails length could certainly be seen as an exemplar of the latter.

img_1566
The Gabba, from deep in the Stanley Street end stand, during day two.

When it came time for Pakistan to bat again, just hours after being dismissed in their first innings, there were signs that they had failed to change their ways and others that suggested they awoke to an epiphany. Sami Aslam looked circumspect after starting with the flair and intent of a man who was given direct orders to play positively or risk having the blame heaped upon him for Pakistan’s middle and lower order failures. There were noticeable improvements early on, but he resorted to scoring at a snails-pace thereafter before eventually snicking one into the unfailing hands of Matt Renshaw at first slip. There’ll be no prizes for guessing the shot that brought about his demise. It was a prime example of Pakistan’s ongoing failure to adapt. The problem that must be keeping coach Mickey Arthur awake at night knowing that he holds the formula to mastering these conditions having served Australia in the same role for three long and unsatisfying years.

Even earlier though, shortly after Pakistan had snared the crucial wickets of openers Renshaw and Warner to put themselves back in with a chance of restoring an iota of respectability and loosening Australia’s grip, Misbah-ul-haq brought his smiling assassin into the attack in a move that mirrored a tactic that worked oh so poorly in the first-innings. Worse still, he had three men set back on the leg side and Yasir, as he did in the first innings, bowling into the pads of the Australian batsmen. Shane Warne was in disbelief when he saw the spin and bounce that was on offer for the leg-spinner to exploit, but wasn’t utilising, and left many more wondering why one of the world’s leading names had suddenly changed his tact after months of sustained success.

It’s no secret that spinners enjoy bowling at the Gabba, Nathan Lyon made this point well known before the test match began. But Yasir Shah must be viewing it as a spin-bowling graveyard having taken just three wickets across two innings in close to 60 overs for 174 runs. Spinners should be having a far greater say in game’s at the Gabba than what Yasir has been allowed to have. They are the game breakers. But they can also be the game makers. Australia have selected Shah as the bowler to go after and have structured their batting around the runs they have been practically gifted off his bowling.

Australia have a few problems of their own, though, that will likely underpin the struggles or success they have in a new year that promises to paint a clearer picture of where Australia are positioned in world cricket. We may have seen Nic Maddinson’s last test innings, last and only boundary and last glimpse of a spritely and uninhibited half century – that never eventuated – filled with shots played under the guise of youthful exuberance. Australia made three changes following the Hobart test and two have cemented themselves in the side as first-rate options to lead Australia into its next major spring cleaning. An admirable strike rate given the pressure cooker environment the young players were immediately subjected to upon their arrival to test match cricket. If they can handle two day/night test match’s under inauspicious circumstances without copping a sucker punch, it suggests that they are made of the right stuff. Shaun Marsh is predicted to be fit and firing by the time the Boxing-Day test rolls around in a week’s time. He will slot straight into the number six position forcing Maddinson to return to First-Class cricket low on confidence but in the knowledge that he is a class above his opposition. A thought that will hold him in good stead to raise his mediocre average above 45, allowing him to stake his claim once again as a candidate for test selection.

img_1567
The Gabba under clear skies at night on Day two.

In more promising news for the host’s, Khawaja showed us once again with an innings stabilising 74 why he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Smith and Warner. He is now a member of Australia’s elite three and is as valuable a player as either of his aforementioned counterparts. At the beginning of the season he was on the outer and treading water following an unproductive tour to Sri Lanka where he was dropped from the side for what felt like the millionth time in a career that has had more bruising bumps in its five year journey than most players, who have surpassed 20 tests, have experienced. He was involved in the homeworkgate saga instigated by Pakistan coach Mickey Arthur which threatened to turn his career on its head. It has played snakes and ladders ever since but the rich vein of form he found in Adelaide and continued at the Gabba has reaffirmed that the talent and ability he has was once hiding under the covers required a simple combination of time, patience and faith to appear as indispensable to the selectors.

Nathan Lyon is another exceeding expectations following a quiet start to the Australian summer. The Brisbane Lions AFL side have made the Gabba their fortress since their three-peat premiership success in the early 2000’s, but for the last three days it has been Australia’s cult hero Nathan Lyon ruling the den. The fans chant an almighty “Gary, Gary, Gary” in unison whenever he fields the ball or his name appears on one of the two big screens at the ground to announce his arrival to the bowling crease. His light-heartedness and availability has made him a man of the people and, as Ian Chappell quite rightly pointed out on commentary today, one of the first off-spin bowlers to have his name celebrated with unadulterated joy. He’s taken just the sole wicket in this test but appears to have regained the confidence he lost a month ago following a series where he was taken to the cleaners. He’s a key ingredient in Australia’s four test tour to India. Confidence and a reassurance of his position in the side are vital if he is to have the kind of impact Ravi Ashwin has had in a record breaking year.

Day four will in all likelihood be the last taste of test cricket for Brisbane locals until the Ashes begins in November next year. Pakistan have shown the fight that was vacant in their first innings to reach 70 for the loss of two wickets at stumps, but the lead of 419 that Australia still hold boarders on an impossible task. Younis is still at the crease while Misbah is eagerly awaiting a second chance in this test after a first-innings failure. There is hope for Pakistan, but it is slim.

Pakistan continue the trend of touring side woe under the Gabba lights

Pakistan made a resurgence early on day two but it was Australia who took the honours on an entertaining second day thanks to an inspired session of bowling from Hazlewood, Statc and Bird under the Gabba lights. The day began promisingly for Pakistan when they took the wicket of Steve Smith, averting any further damage that the previous day’s centurion showed signs of inflicting early on. But Handscomb, the man who played second fiddle to his captain for much of the first day, made sure that Pakistan wouldn’t be let off the hook, bringing up his maiden test century and pushing the Australian first innings total beyond 350. His technique is a little unorthodox, both in the way he sets up and the point at which he strikes the ball, and his fluency may have been stymied by a better bowling attack with greater variation. The all left-arm attack of Pakistan played right into Handscomb’s hands, with the angle across his body allowing him to run the ball off the face of the bat from deep in his crease down to third man. An area that proved to be particularly productive for him despite the protection Misbah had in place when he quckly became aware of Handscomb’s strengths. One must wonder how this technique will cope in countries like England where the ball swings a great deal more and the bounce is not nearly as high as what he will have experienced on the grounds he knows so well here in Australia. What was most pleasing about his innings was the patience and level-headedness he showed when wickets were tumbling at the other end. Lesser players would have looked to push the rate and reach their hundred before the well of tail end batsmen ran dry. But there was Handscomb, defending resolutely when the ball was pitched in a good area and attacking when the opportunity eventually presented itself. At no stage did he look to shelter his partner at the other end by rotating the strike to ensure he faced the majority of the deliveries at the back end of the innings.

img_1564
Fans, including myself, gather outside the Gabba nets to watch the players prepare for day two.

Everything about Handscomb, his temperament, mindset and willingness to take on the bowlers screams experienced test cricketer. But he is just 29 and hasn’t yet become a fully fledged member of this Australian side. The future is bright.

The success Pakistan experienced in the morning session was quickly extinguished when they took to the batting crease under cloudy skies with the lights on the cusp of taking full effect at a venue that has shown its night session to produce more wicket taking deliveries than the previous two day/ night venues. There were so many flash points throughout the day’s play that to cover them all would take up a great deal more than the usual 1000 words.

First came the continuation of the first day’s unusual field settings and inconsistent bowling lengths, before Wahab and Amir combined to clean up the Australian tail for an insurmountable total of 429. But that wasn’t without a terrific rearguard action from Bird and Lyon who provided the knockout blow that might yet ensure Australia bat just once in this game.

Then came Pakistan’s astonishing and unforeseen capitulation. What would be most disappointing for them upon reflection of each dismissal would surely be the way in which they were caught in the slips pushing at deliveries that in Australian conditions quite simply should not have been played at. This is part of the learning curve touring sides face when they reach our shores and they must be awake to these glaring deficiencies if they wish to return from this series in a state that isn’t far from where they left off in England. The entire top order, including experienced campaigners Misbah and Younis, were all dismissed in a similar fashion to deliveries pitched in a zone that forced them to play with hard hands when they should have been shouldering arm’s. Particularly during the early stages of their innings.

img_1565
The Channel Nine television camera’s in operation at the Stanley Street end mid-afternoon

Australia’s fast bowling cartel showed once again why the Gabba has become a fortress that touring sides despise. The bounce of the wicket caught Pakistan off guard and the procession of wickets that followed were all a product of their inability to adjust to the foreign conditions. Australia face a similar proposition when they tour India early next year. They must compensate for the low bounce and turn of the sub-continent wickets in order to avoid leaving with their tales fixed firmly between their legs. A feeling Australia know all too well of late. The steps are already in place for them to achieve, now it is simply a matter of the players executing their skills and repaying the selectors faith. There is no room for passengers in series’ such as these that could go awry and expose technical flaws no sooner than the players have stepped off the aircraft. Pakistan have shown a total unwillingness to battle and scrap like so many Australian side’s have on the road in the past, and have looked as adept at countering what the Australian’s have thrown at them as Nic Maddinson has looked a man who knows his place in the test arena. They are a team full of weak links that are on the brink of being the umpteenth touring side to get chewed up and spat out by the alien conditions. Sides from the sub-continent have tried and tried in Australia to find a method that garners a favourable result, but the result is often as frivolous as the attempt. Particularly at the Gabba, where Australia have remained unbeaten since 1988. Pakistan, from what they’ve shown us across the opening two days, look as if they are destined to suffer the same fate as many that have gone before them but without showing the same fight and perseverence under adversity that we have become accustomed to seeing from recent Asian touring sides India and Sri Lanka. It’s difficult to see where Pakistan’s runs will come from given the impatience that has made an epidemic like spread through their batting line up since the first test in New Zealand.

Pakistan’s plight allows Australia to dominate day one at the Gabba

img_15631
Shadows descend on the Gabba as the game moves into the twilight period

Australia could hardly have asked for a better start to the series. Each batsman who walked to the crease, with the exception of Khawaja who fell in the most inconspicuous of circumstances to the bowling of Yasir Shah, got at least a start and have set up the game nicely for Australia to build momentum going into the test match’s most crucial days.

Pakistan’s ultra conservative field placements, unthreatening bowling and lack of effort was evident throughout the day and has cost them dearly. New ball pairing Mohammad Amir and Rahat Ali produced too many deliveries over the course of the first hours play that failed to utilise the Gabba’s notorious pace and bounce, which allowed the Australians to build the foundation required to mount a significant first innings score. Warner and Renshaw looked at ease for the majority of their innings thanks to some rather peculiar field placings and bowling changes by Pakistan captain Misbah ul-Haq who, despite his age, looked out of his depth during the clutch moments. Yasir Shah, who came on in the tenth over of the day’s play and shared in a third of the 90 completed overs, was made to bowl to an ultra conservative field which featured three men deep on the leg side (long-on, deep mid-wicket and deep fine-leg). Perhaps it was a plan architected in the bowels of the away dressing room prior to the bowling of the first ball. You’d certainly hope for this to be the case given the number of deliveries targeted at the batsmen’s leg stump, and the number of shots played freely through the leg side. No test match spinner should be giving away that many runs so easily if his initial aim isn’t to have them caught sweeping or fending.

Smith’s hundred came as no great surprise but was a pleasing sight for an Australian side gearing up for a monumental tour to India in two months time. Pakistan’s impatience and incapacity to bowl one line, on one side of the stumps, led to their downfall and allowed Smith to play in a fashion that was not only devoid of risk, but let him ease into his innings by playing his natural game. For a large part of the day, Pakistan were unable to build up maiden overs and the pressure put on the incoming batsman was similarly non existent. Of course, the two are inextricably linked, and there was no greater sign of this then when Smith sent anything pitched short by Rahat Ali into the mid-wicket fence and anything full careering into the sight screens at either end of the ground. They didn’t bowl to Smith’s weaknesses, nor did they make a concerted effort to pepper away at a consistent line and they have payed the ultimate price as a result. Steve Smith is 110 not out at stumps. God only knows how many more he is capable of putting on tomorrow if Pakistan come out as uninterested and pedestrian as they did today.

img_15611
The lights in full effect at the Gabba on Day One.

At no stage, other than during the last ten overs, did Pakistan ever look as if they were ready and raring to take on the challenge of a young Australian unit on a wicket that gave them a fantastic opportunity to make early inroads. They were late to the party and the score had ticked over to a hundred for the loss of one wicket by the time they finally appeared to awake from their slumber. By this stage, though, the opportunity to take the game away from Australia had already past them by. They needed to set the tone early and fire warning shots at the fragile Australian dressing room that are only now recovering from the turmoil they underwent less than a month ago. But they weren’t reactive enough and couldn’t adjust to the conditions at their feet. If they are to play themselves back into this game (which looks unlikely at this stage) they must start by finishing off the Australian middle and lower order by no later than mid-way through the second session tomorrow. If Australia surpass 500 on a Gabba wicket that promises to quicken up with age, there may be no coming back. Particularly when you consider that Starc and Hazlewood are likely to be unleashed under the Gabba lights with a new pink ball in hand. An ugly scenario for Pakistan’s top order to negotiate after one and a half days spent toiling away in the field.

img_15561
It’s difficult to tell, but Smith and Handscomb are at the wicket in this photo.

Pakistan are a side capable of topping the world rankings once again if they find it within themselves to produce the performances we saw in England on a regular basis. Their lethargy in the field, indiscipline with ball in hand and lack of knowledge of local conditions has put them on the back foot in this series already. They look a side devoid of options in the bowling department and are easily swayed by the recent form of batsmen against opposing nations – as the field placings to David Warner exemplified today. The New Zealand tour has bruised ego’s, and the road to recovery following an error ridden first day is a rocky one.

Side Note – The Gabba also received a big tick for the attendees it managed to attract to the first day following calls for the grounds neck by CA officials and other commentators during the week. The innovations brought in by CA in partnership with the ground where instrumental in producing a crowd in-excess of 26,000 fans and has likely diverted attention away from Brisbane’s apparent declining interest in test cricket for at least the course of this test match.

There will be a more comprehensive wrap after play tomorrow on not only the game’s progress, but also a few things about the pink ball that caught my eye.