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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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. 
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This one is also from 2015. Australia v New Zealand – first test – Brisbane.
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Queensland in the nets ahead of their Day/ Night shield clash with NSW in round one 2016.
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Fans outside the nets watch on as the players prepare for day two. Australia v Pakistan.
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A panorama of the Gabba during the evening session of the test match between Australia and Pakistan.
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A grainy photo of Starc delivering to one of the Pakistan openers on Day two at the Gabba.
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The Gabba at tea on day two – Australia v Pakistan
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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.

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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.

Late wickets sink final nail in Pakistan coffin

Pakistan fought valiantly to push the game into a fifth day, but the loss of crucial wickets at important junctions has all but written off their late dash to the finish line.

Asad Shafiq’s hundred and the belligerence of tail-end batsmen Amir and Wahab have put Pakistan in with a fighting chance of defying the historical odds stacked heavily against them. Yet the probability of breaking the age-old record to crack Australia’s 490 is slim, and will require a one up on the heroics they displayed this evening.

Pakistan’s elder statesmen needed to be the one’s to guide the ship home, but they were both dismissed in a fashion that would have had coach Mickey Arthur pulling at his hair. Younis, with his wealth of experience totalling 110 matches, was able to keep Australia at bay for a session with a typically defiant innings, before playing a stroke born of frustration to become Lyon’s second victim. His brain fade, that came in the form of a reverse sweep, was labelled “ridiculous” by former Pakistan quick Waqar Younis in the Channel Nine commentary box. But it was more of a crime than an act of stupidity and may have been the catalyst that caused the pins to start tumbling late in the day.

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The grounds crew prepare the wicket at tea on Day One.

Younis Khan has the great ability to frustrate sides and opposition captains to the edge of insanity. He did it against England earlier this year at the Oval – a game Pakistan managed to win thanks to his score of 218. You could see Starc and Hazlewood’s frustration flowing from their ears. The short pitched bowling that followed was a byproduct of the pain that Younis and Azhar had managed to heap on in a matter of just two short sessions. But his reverse sweep, which came during a period of the innings that required patience and unfailing concentration, was unbefitting of a man with more combined test match experience than half the Pakistan side combined.

Misbah-ul-haq was guilty of similar crimes. The stroke that brought about his demise might not have been as extravagant as Younis, but the risk factor was practically identical. He pushed at a good length ball from Jackson Bird with all the might and flamboyance of an invincible and battle hardened cricketer but with the footwork of a newly born calf. It was a carbon copy of his dismissal in the first innings. A danger sign for the Pakistan stalwart who must find a way to play on Australian wickets again before his flaws reach a stage where they are beyond repair.

Australian captain Steve Smith will be sleeping uneasily tonight with the thought of ‘what if’ a reoccurring theme in his dreams. His own drops, including what would have been the prized scalp of centurion Asad Shafiq, have kept Pakistan in the contest and might yet prove to be bigger slip up’s than those that allowed former Olympic speed skater Steve Bradbury to take out the gold medal at the 2002 winter Olympic Games.

Pakistan are the underdogs who couldn’t put a foot right on the opening two days of a series defining test match. Australia are the grinning cheshire cats who shifted into cruise control this morning having set Pakistan a seemingly unassailable total. There have been some terrific tales of the little man overcoming the unbreakable giants: David v Goliath; England v Ireland (and the Netherlands); Leicester City v 5000/1 odds. But none would be greater than this if Shafiq can combine with Pakistan’s last remaining warriors to make up the remaining 107 run deficit.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

What’s in store for Australia’s junior brigade during the forthcoming clash with Pakistan

There will be plenty of minor sub plots for the cricketing community to sink their teeth into when the First test against Pakistan roles into Brisbane on Thursday. There’s the ongoing saga involving former Australian coach Mickey Arthur, and the discontent that continues to bottle up over the terms in which he and Australia parted ways, despite the fact that his axing can now be filed under ancient history. He’s now a bona fide and respected member of the Pakistan team who added a notch to his belt earlier this year when he coached the side to number one in the world. A remarkable feat for a man who was thrown out of his last major gig to a resounding ‘hurrah’ from the playing group and cricket board. Many felt that he was the source of dressing room disharmony, which makes his rise to prominence from the ashes of the wreckage that was his career all the more impressive. But his major goal would surely be to give Australia a dose of their own medicine and earn back a hint of the respectability he lost following the homework-gate saga. What better place to do it than on their home soil, in front of their home fans, during a period in which they are at their most vulnerable.

Mickey Arthur, Photo: The Indian Express

There’s also the curious case of Mohammad Amir – the comeback kid who has been put through the wringer on the road back to the national team following his involvement in a spot fixing scandal that occurred during Pakistan’s tour to England in 2010. He’s come along way since we first saw him back then as a meek, baby faced fast bowling prodigy being put behind bars alongside his captain and mentor in a cruel twist of fate that continues to divide the cricketing public. He might prove to be the thorn in Australia’s side, as he was the last time Pakistan let him loose on an Australian batting order.

That was 2010, and if he can find the form we’ve witnessed so far on his come back tour, which has seen him travel to England and then to the UAE for a series against the West Indies, this could be a break-out series which sees him reassume the mantle as one of the worlds most revered young fast bowlers. It was that way before he was led astray by the most influential figure in his young adult life, and he might well have his name up in lights for the second time in this soap-opera of a career if he can lead Pakistan to victory in arguably their biggest challenge since they humbled England in August.

For the Australian side, this series couldn’t take on any greater importance. They are the walking wounded who made the call for reinforcements a few weeks back and have been reaping the rewards ever since. But the young side remain as vulnerable as they were before their all important initiation in Adelaide, and their inexperience could well lead to their downfall if they are suddenly thrust behind the eight ball. How will an inexperienced middle order react to being 3/35 under lights with Pakistan’s opening bowlers swinging the ball around corners as the did in their tour match against the CAXI.

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The Gabba will be the venue for the first encounter between Australia and Pakistan.

There was a sense of beginners luck – which stemmed directly from the exuberance of youth – about the test win in Adelaide. The side had nothing to loose having already been handed their backsides in Hobart and any further losses would have simply been a continuation of recent trends, and hence, nothing for the public to cry foul about. But Australia have managed to steady the ship and they now must live up to their newly forged expectations by beating a side that looks fatigued and gun-shy after four months of globetrotting. The batting order had little answer to what the New Zealand bowling attack threw at them on the green seamers at Hagley Oval and Seddon Park. By comparison, Australia have an experienced and finely tuned new ball pairing, wickets with pace and bounce at their disposal and showed one again in the recently completed Chappell Hadlee series that their seamers are a class above New Zealand’s. If they can’t deliver with the ball and their volatile batting falters, Pakistan will take advantage of their shortcomings and they will quickly return to the position they found themselves in at the beginning of the summer.

I’ll be visiting the ground on days one and two and will report back with photos and a brief report at stumps.