The first test in Perth ended with either a bang or a whimper, depending on which side of the fence you sat.
Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins, aided and abetted by the wily spin of Nathan Lyon, blew Pakistan’s batting order away on day four. The final margin of 360 runs was, the tourists will feel, a rather poor reflection of the moments of promise that they showed throughout the match.
Warner shuts down the talk
The major topic of conversation in newspapers, television and talkback radio circles alike leading up to the match centred around whether David Warner could, or should, play in Sydney. With a mixture of bludgeoning violence and surgical precision, he silenced any doubt to the tune of 164 runs on the first day.
Do not let it be said that this was merely another display of the flat-track bullying for which the critics would argue Warner is famous for. Indeed, this effort would rank highly in the list of his very finest hundreds for Australia.
Batting seemed far from an easy proposition on the first day in Perth. The wicket famed for being the quickest and bounciest in the world was predictably quick and bouncy. However, there was a softness to the surface which allowed for variations of pace bowling into the turf, and generous seam movement when the bowlers hit the right lengths.
The last point is the most salient. Pakistan’s pace attack pitched too short, too often, especially in the crucial opening spell when the assistance was at its greatest. By the time they worked out where to bowl, the advantage was lost.
Warner was twice out in this match playing horizontal bat shots into the leg side field, indicating that Pakistan might have thought there was a plan that they can exploit. If this is the case, they may pay a large price in runs in Melbourne and Sydney for any success that they achieve.
Smith is far from a spent force
Steve Smith played two innings in this match that suggested reports of his demise as a Test batsman are somewhat premature. There had been suggestions that merely averaging in the 40s over the past year, rather than his lofty career figure of near 60, portrayed a waning of his powers.
When Smith feels under threat, either from the court of public opinion or from his own exacting standards, he retreats into a cocoon of steely determination. His cold stare telling the world that he will be leaving the crease when he sees fit rather than the bowler. Anyone that saw Smith’s epic unbeaten 141 against England in Brisbane in 2017 would have no doubt of his resolve that can border on damned bloody-mindedness.
That same steel was on display when Smith came to the crease on the first afternoon after the dismissal of his friend and protégé Marnus Labuschagne. When, on 31, he feathered an albeit fine late outswinger from Pakistani debutant Khurram Shahzad into the waiting gloves of Sarfaraz Khan, it was a great surprise to all that witnessed the event.
Not least Smith himself, who left the ground with the slow, disconsolate shuffle of a man that had come for caviar but left with the mere consolation of a fried chip.
The second innings provided more of the same, his 45 runs promising a much greater return before his stand was ended when he failed to overturn a marginal leg-before decision in favour of Shahzad on review. That review suggested that the ball would have clipped the absolute top of the leg bail were it not intercepted by the Smith pad.
For far too long there has been too much conjecture for the ball-tracking technology to be relied upon, and Smith himself was furious, clearly convinced that the ball would have missed the stumps. It is difficult, near impossible to suggest with 100% certainty that he was wrong.
The collected video review data, we are frequently told, proves the point that the on-field umpires get the vast majority of their decisions right. We now have an international panel of the very best of the world’s umpires to adjudicate test matches.
So back them.
Keep the DRS for line decisions such as run-outs, stumpings and no-balls, and take the on-field umpire’s decision for everything else. We respected the umpire’s decision with the premise that the benefit of any doubt went in favour of the batsman for over 130 years. The game was better for it.
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The Bison shows his strength
Mitchell Marsh’s position in the national side has seldom been assured, as a tally of 36 test matches in nine years will attest. At the age of 32 with limited time left at the top level, he is now giving the air of a man who is comfortable with his place in the team.
One suspects he has been given clear instruction from coach and captain regarding his role, and backing to say that his position is not under threat at the merest hint of failure. Whatever the catalyst may be, it is certain that he now feels that he is safe to express himself and is reacting accordingly.
Virender Sehwag is frequently credited with being one of the pioneers of the modern trend at the top of the innings; that which says that if the ball is there to be attacked, then it is to be attacked mercilessly. When once asked the secret to his success, he remarked, “I am not afraid of getting out”. Simple and obvious, but when you think of it, incredibly effective.
There is a lot of that attitude in the way that Marsh is playing at the moment. His 90 from 107 balls took the game away from Pakistan on the second morning after they threatened to restrict Australia the evening before. An almost run-a-ball 63 whilst attempting to set up a declaration on day four was, if anything, even more brutal.
The number six position in a batting line-up that is more often than not successful is somewhat akin to the finisher’s role in a one-day international. An effective number six can take an advantage and turn it into an unassailable one. Marsh is currently playing this role as well as anyone in the world of test cricket.
When that person can chip in with a handy wicket or two, that is cream for the cake. Babar Azam, having nicked off against Marsh in the first innings, can attest to this.
The new wave of Pakistani cricketer
Pakistan unveiled two debutants in their bowling attack in this match. Khurram Shahzad took the new ball alongside the established Shaheen Shah Afridi, and immediately settled into a more reliable line and length than his more illustrious colleague could muster.
They were followed by another seamer taking his bow, Aamer Jamal. Jamal took slightly longer to get into his work, but like Shahzad, he soon appeared as a fast learner with no small amount of skill, and one who was not afraid to get into the trenches and work hard.
A montage of Jamal’s six wickets in the first innings proved to be a fascinating study. In it you can see a bowler growing before your very eyes, picking up his trade by studying what works for him and what doesn’t.
His first two wickets (a Travis Head on the rampage and a David Warner with 8,600 test runs under his belt), showed a bowler with quite a ragged action. His front arm pointing towards the right-hander’s third slip, and the bowling arm somewhat low.
Fast forward a day, with the confidence of test wickets behind him and the promise of a bag on debut, with the security of selection that this brings, and everything is moving forwards and pointing straight at the target. It is no coincidence that Jamal was noticeably quicker at the end of the innings than he was at the start, and caused the Australian batsmen a lot more trouble as a result.
In Australia’s second innings Shahzad followed his young cohort into the fray, quickly removing Warner and Labuschagne in a hostile opening spell and adding Smith to the tally early the following morning. He showed in both innings a welcome absence of fear: a willingness to mix it with the very best of company, as though he felt that he belonged from the outset.
It is too early to know the temperament of these two young bowlers; how they will handle the two great impostors, success and failure. What this test showed us, however, is that they have the talent to be a real handful if they have the minds and hearts to back that talent up.
A new batting talent
To label a batsman as having potential can be somewhat similar to telling a football manager that he has the backing of the board. It can be an assurance of belief, but it can also be the calm before the storm of ultimate failure.
Saud Shakeel came to this country with seven test matches in his resume. That he had passed 50 in an innings in each of these first seven matches made him unique amongst the 3,160 cricketers to have appeared in a men’s test match. It’s a small sample size, but his potential is undeniable.
Ultimately that run was to end in this encounter in Perth, as it was always going to one day. However, Shakeel got starts in both innings, falling for 28 in his first attempt on Australian soil, and being ninth out for 24 in the final batting collapse on the fourth afternoon.
In the end he was unstitched by bounce in being caught behind the wicket in the first innings, and lack of bounce whilst being palpably leg-before in the second. Before that though, Shakeel showed the good judgement to determine which balls to attack, and the knowledge of his own game to select the right shot to execute that attack.
The doubters will point to the fact that Shakeel’s first seven matches were all in sub-continental conditions, where the ball does not bounce like it does in Australia and the time available to batsmen to determine their shot is that fraction greater as a result.
Irrespective of where the matches are played though, one does not average 87.50 per innings as Shakeel did before Perth, without being able to bat. The last Pakistani tyro that came to these shores with a similar early record was Javed Miandad, and he went on to have a pretty fair career.
Where have all the people gone?
Crowds in Perth test matches have long been a bone of contention for Cricket Australia to choke on. They have been poor for a number of years, and it had been hoped that the creation of the new, modern Optus Stadium to replace the more outdated WACA ground would alleviate the problem.
After a promising spike in the early years of the stadium the attendances have once more dropped to WACA-like levels, and while many cricketing nations would be more than happy for 59,000 people to attend the four days of their test match, that simply does not pay the bills in a country like Australia.
It has been noted that a test match against Pakistan is not exactly a draw card, especially on the back of the West Indies visiting Perth last season. The proliferation of cricket in the marketplace after the World Cup, and even the lasting effects of the Sandpaper scandal five years ago have also been raised as mitigating factors.
This though clouds the overall picture, and that is that Perth crowds have been fickle at best for many years. Prominent local journalist Tim Gossage has made the point that they shouldn’t be judged on the last two seasons, but on a test match against one of the world’s major cricketing nations. With India set to visit next season this theory can be tested.
Whether the problem is marketing, saturation or the overall popularity of the teams playing, Cricket Australia and WA Cricket need to come together to solve this issue sooner rather than later as nobody wants to see the West Test, as it is now known, disappear from the calendar. The best brains in the game will be working on this as we speak, and the nation’s cricketing public waits attentively to see what they come up with.