Australia’s captain Tim Paine and Pakistan skipper Azhar Ali posing with the series trophy at the Gabba. Photograph Handout Courtesy of Mazher Arshad/ AFP via Getty Images
As Australian take on Pakistan at the Gabba for their first engagement, a long wait has come to an end, writes Geoff Lemon in The Guardian
When Test match morning rolls around, at last, it always feels like the longest wait has come to an end. No matter how many hours of overseas tours you may have watched through the winter, Australian summer is something distant returning to life. Its matches will join a sequence of seasons running back through the decades, becoming the fabric of summer holidays, populating the retro highlight packages of the future.
Having a Test cricket start in November can feel early, arriving before summer and its pleasures have really taken effect. But to eyes that have been watching since the start, this cricket season has been going for a long time already. Four series of white-ball matches involving Australia’s men and women have passed by, along with Sheffield Shield rounds, some thrillers in the one-day cup, and weeks of easily the best Women’s Big Bash season thus far.
But now it’s Test time, and the longest matches remain the defining centre of each cricket season, with so much more time to build their identity and carve themselves a place on your consciousness. That’s just one more reason why it’s so unfair that Australia’s women are excluded from playing the format too.
Now we’re supposedly in the age of the fresh start, with Tim Paine insisting on a different approach since replacing Smith as captain. Each returning batsman enters this summer under his own divergent version of pressure: Smith after 774 runs in seven innings in England this year will be expected to peel off hundreds every time he bats; Warner after 95 runs in 10 innings will be able to afford little failure before the carrion birds begin to caw.
Around them, Australia’s selectors have assembled four other batsmen each marked with a probationary tag by his name. Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Travis Head and Matthew Wade have all drifted in and out of the side over varying periods of time. Each has the chance to hold his place, but it would be bold to assume that each will.
Far more convincing is Australia’s first-choice suite of bowlers, with Pat Cummins leading Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood as a primary trio with pace, patience and skill. James Pattinson waits in the wings with the same traits, while Nathan Lyon’s appetite for work will provide the support they need, as well as seeing his prodigious wicket tally grow.
For the team facing off against Australia, this is an opportunity. Time and again, Pakistan teams visiting this country have promised but under-delivered. Fine stroke-makers have been cut down, dangerous bowlers have lost their edge. Pakistan’s last visit to Brisbane in 2016 nearly produced the biggest run chase in Test history, making 450 in the fourth innings. But the team had been dominated for the first three days of the match to fall so far behind.
This time Pakistan do have a team that just trashed Australia’s reserves, including some highly-rated players, racking up a huge score before shooting out nine wickets for 57 runs. Babar Azam has been in gorgeous touch, Asad Shafiq made centuries in both of his team’s practice matches, and Azhar Ali made a double ton last time he visited Australia.
Pakistan won’t announce their team until the captains toss the coin, but Azhar has confirmed that 16-year-old fast-bowler Naseem Shah will play. He will offer express pace and a fondness for short stuff, while Shaheen Afridi can bowl as fast and swing the ball in both directions. The seamer Mohammad Abbas is far more modest on the velocity dial but took Australia apart with seam movement in the UAE last year. Leg-spinner Yasir Shah has piled up 203 Test wickets in fewer matches than any bowler.
These bowlers will take on an Australian batting outfit at a vulnerable ebb. India took advantage of this to win a Test series in Australia for the first time last summer, now Pakistan have a similar chance. But India didn’t have to bowl to Smith, and as he proved in England recently, he can literally be the difference by himself. What happens next will be added to the sequence. The next chapter of Australia’s summer story is about to get written. Toss the coin. This story was first published in The Guardian