After the first test in Rawalpindi delighted few bar the statisticians and possibly the PCB Chairman, the action moves to the coastal city of Karachi. The main centre of interest is the 22-yard strip in the middle of the National Stadium and whether it will offer some assistance to those playing on it, rather than the concrete-like surface produced for the first match.
Initial images showed a distinct tinge of green to the cut surface, with the added footnote that Karachi wickets tend to offer some swing and seam movement early on whilst being more favourable to the spinners on days four and five. However, photographs 24 hours later depicting ground staff on their hands and knees scrubbing the wicket to remove any trace of grass give rise to fears that we may be looking at a pitch designed to make another turgid stalemate.
The eyes of the cricket world were fixed squarely on Rawalpindi for the first test match between Pakistan and Australia in Pakistan since 1998. Since the match was completed with a meagre fourteen wickets falling in five days of cricket that seemed utterly pointless long before the final curtain was drawn, those eyes still remain.
If test cricket is to survive and thrive, it is incumbent on all participants, from the chairmen of the respective boards to the number 11 batsman at the crease when the game reaches a result, to deliver a product that the public and the cricket world wish to view.
It is in this part of the world, where the clientele is showing an ever-increasing tendency to place their interest in 20-over cricket, or no cricket at all, at the merest hint of boredom where this incumbency is most vital.
Therefore, it is to be hoped that the combatants on the field of play will approach this match with a positive mindset, irrespective of the conditions that they face in the middle. The Australians lost faith with the composition of their attack long before the dying embers of the match were ground into the Rawalpindi dust: for Karachi they will rest one of their pacemen, most likely Josh Hazlewood, in favour of a second spinner.
Pakistan is likely to go the other way in addressing the balance of its attack. The late selection of Iftikhar Ahmed meant that three spinners played in Rawalpindi, albeit that Iftikhar bowled just three overs.
Original selection Faheem Ashraf has overcome a hamstring injury and a pre-match Covid scare to be available for selection, and he should come into the line-up in Iftikhar’s stead. Faheem adds to Pakistan’s flexibility and potency on two fronts: firstly he provides that extra medium paced option for Babar Azam to utilise. However, he is also a free-scoring batsman who could offer the batting order some useful extra impetus to move the game forward.
The other change could be to the composition of the new ball attack, with Hasan Ali and Haris Rauf now available after overcoming illness and injury respectively. Pakistan may feel that the cunning of Hasan or the penetration of Rauf may be preferable as a foil to Shaheen Shah Afridi. This may be tough on the young incumbent, Naseem Shah: Shaheen and Naseem could rightly point to having outbowled their Australian pace counterparts in Rawalpindi, but it is also true that he bowled 21 overs for only one late wicket whilst leaking runs at a greater rate than his colleagues.
Having only come back into the Australian team three matches ago, Khawaja has wasted no time in showing his value to the side at the top of the order.
In the first match of the series he looked as comfortable as any of the batters on show before making rather a meal of a reverse sweep to perish just three runs short of a deserved century. If Australia are to take a series lead into the third test in Lahore, the opening partnership will again be vital here in Karachi.
The other advantage that Khawaja brings is his ability to keep the scoreboard moving. He is one of those players for whom you look at the scoreboard and realise that he has made 30 whilst seeming to have hardly troubled the scorers.
This aids captain Cummins in controlling the tempo of the game, an aspect of cricket vital to success on the sub-continent. If Australia are to make sufficient runs and allow themselves time to dismiss their hosts twice, they will need the ingenuity and dash that Khawaja offers.
Australia have confirmed that debutant leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson will play in Karachi. This makes the role of Nathan Lyon even more important than it has been in the recent past.
Swepson will be used as a purely attacking force. His inclusion is designed to give Australia a cutting edge that they sorely missed in Rawalpindi, but the nature of the beast is that he is likely to concede runs at a greater rate than Cummins may desire.
Lyon did not bowl badly in Rawalpindi by any means. His match figures of one for 236 owed more to the nature of the wicket than any particular defect on his part, and it is worthwhile noting that his off-spinning counterpart took one for 122 in Australia’s only innings.
Here Lyon must play the support role as well as attacking in his own right. It falls to him to keep the pressure on at one end, and stem the flow of runs from Pakistani bats, so that his young cohort can bowl without the stress of feeling that he must contain as well as attack. By doing so, Lyon may see some scalps coming his way as a result of bowling within a successful spinning partnership.
Imam has gone from uncertain starter to key member of the batting order in the space of a week. He rarely looked troubled in his first test match in over two years in the first encounter of the series. Now, after scoring 268 runs for only once out, he transforms from the hunter to the hunted.
Imam provides one characteristic for which Pakistan have been hunting for quite some time: a cool head at the top of the batting order. To him falls the vital role of not only blunting the Australian attack himself, but also reigning in the impetuosity of partner Abdullah Shafique at the other end.
That he was able to do so in the second innings gave the hosts real hope that they may have found a long-term opening partnership. The rashness of the stroke from which Rafique perished in the first innings was no more, helped in no small regard by the steady influence at the other end of the pitch.
A repeat performance in Karachi should all-but insure Pakistan against defeat. It remains to be seen whether they have the quality, flair and intent to push for a victory that would put them in the box seat to bring series-winning glory to their team and great joy to their people.
Rizwan gives his team something that is vital to success in the sub-continent: unbridled enthusiasm to go alongside his unfailing efficiency behind the stumps. It is, however, the second string to Rizwan’s bow that makes him so important to his team this week.
Pakistan’s batting, whilst wonderfully solid in Rawalpindi, tended to be a bit one-paced. Though it may or may not have made a difference to the result in the long run, Pakistan could have placed rather more pressure on Australia had it managed to score at a quicker rate late on the second day, hence allowing an earlier declaration and a nastier, more prolonged period of examination for the Australian openers.
Here’s where Rizwan is such an asset. He is the ultimate swingman; one who can up the tempo where needed whilst still possessing the skill and technique to play more circumspectly should things start going awry.
Not by accident is Mohammad Rizwan amongst the first names inked into the Pakistan team sheet, and not for nothing is he keeping a very handy cricketer in Sarfaraz Ahmed out of the side. Babar Azam will need his adaptable batting and buccaneering spirit as much as his wise counsel if he is to oversee a positive result in Karachi.
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Mitchell Swepson v. Babar Azam
Do not underestimate the importance of the performance of debutant Swepson. He has waited a long time for his opportunity, and Australia definitely see the potential to be a match winner for them should all the right cards fall into place.
Pakistan will try to assert their authority over Swepson from the outset in this match. Expect the main attack dog to be the captain himself. Babar Azam will feel that he has the quality, responsibility and the best opportunity to neutralise the danger, and ensure that the young leg spinner does not gain a foothold into the match.
Australia will recall the last time it gave a test cap to a right-arm wrist spinner. That happened thirteen years ago in Cape Town, and Bryce McGain was hit out of the attack with such force that he was never seen in Australian colours again.
Interim coach Andrew McDonald played in that match. Whilst he does not expect such carnage to rain upon Swepson, he will recognise the importance of ensuring that the plans are in place to make sure that another such attack cannot succeed.
Players to Watch
Labuschagne is a fascinating watch in this match. He showed in Rawalpindi that he now has not only the ability, but also the confidence to take the game up to the opposition away from home, as well as in the more favourable conditions of his own country
Many is the time in Asian conditions that the visiting team has made a commanding start, only to fall away as new batters struggle to adapt to the pace of the wicket and the wiles of the local spinners. Labuschagne is not such an easy nut to prise open. By the end of this season he will be spoken of as being a truly world-class player, if he is not already.
Add this to his leg-spin which is trickier than it looks, its potency enhanced rather than hindered by its innocuousness, and Labuschagne becomes one of the most important players in this Australian side. Certainly there are no doubts of his worth in the Australian camp.
Shaheen Shah Afridi
If any paceman enhanced his reputation in Rawalpindi, then it was the impressive left-armer Afridi. It seemed a different game when he took the ball, and even on a wicket as benign as this one, Australia’s batters could never let their guard down against him.
The ability to swing an older ball is invaluable in this part of the world, and Afridi has learned his trade well. Still a young bowler, he currently averages 24 runs per wicket and is quickly allying his natural ability with the experience needed to allow him to think an opponent out.
If Afridi can remove one or both Australian openers early, then suddenly the pressure is applied to the middle order. This remains Pakistan’s best chance of victory in the second test.
David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steven Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Swepson
Imam ul-Haq, Abdullah Rafique, Azhar Ali, Babar Azam, Fawad Alam, Mohammad Rizwan, Hasan Ali, Sajid Khan, Nauman Ali, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf
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