As the sporting world takes a break in the middle of a global pandemic, sports lovers are finding other ways to pursue their passion; reliving classic matches, hypothesising about makeshift season details and constructing hypothetical line-ups.
Darren Lehmann arrived at the helm of Australian cricket in 2013 after an overseas tour marked by failure and controversy, as does now the contrastingly demure Justin Langer for his first full Test as coach.
The former was brought in for his grit and gruffness, for a return to the ‘old’ Australia way of playing. The latter, an apology for a failed test of character in Australian cricket as led by Lehmann’s pugnaciousness.
Western Australian cricket finds itself as strong as ever across three formats thanks to their coach: a team culture of positivity, encouragement, and a touch of insularity has brought success and a call up for the incumbent. There’s no doubt he’s a wonderful, unique coach, who loves to bring the best out of his players both personally and professionally.
At the same time he was certainly chosen over Ricky Ponting and Jason Gillespie as an antithesis to the rigs-and-balls Lehmann era.
Cricket Australia’s media warmup to the upcoming tour of the U.A.E. has been relatively quiet, with the feel-good JLT domestic tournament and the women’s T20 series against the Kiwis front and centre of social media attention. Overseas Test tours, especially in the alien conditions of the Middle East, are incredibly tough challenges, and it’s best for a rookie-filled team to find its feet away from a public that will be undoubtedly quick to condemn.
A positive series result would be unlikely for the Australians even if Steve Smith, Dave Warner and Cameron Bancroft were available. I’d suggest looking more to the character with which the team plays, and to individual performances. Teams can lose badly, or lose well, and the difference is crucial in the long run.
The single tour match is now finished, with all the Australian batsmen having played well. Usman Khawaja was the lowest scorer for 36, but there was a century for Mitchell Marsh.
The key fact, problematically, is that Pakistan played none of their frontline spinners. Last time Australia toured the U.A.E., spinners took 30 of 39 wickets, so there’s little to read into Australia’s batting performance so far.
Nathan Lyon, on the other hand, took eight in the first innings, and the team’s performance as a whole arguably rests more on his shoulders than anyone else’s. Meanwhile, the patient Jon Holland took five overnight to all but confirm his spot.
We’ll judge later on performance, all we can say now is that there’s opportunity for a number of debutants to make a mark (as M. Marsh did in 2014). Aaron Finch and Travis Head are confirmed to play, Marnus Labuschagne, Brendan Doggett and Michael Neser all potential starters—and for a 211-wicket veteran in the form of Peter Siddle.
In fact, the only players without the need to prove they belong are arguably Lyon and Mitch Starc.
Beyond individual performance what matters most is the character and resilience with which the team plays. Not because it’s an overseas tour, or the first for a new captain/coach duo, or because of the number of debutants.
It’s because the shadow of this Australian team’s utter failure of character last summer is still cast heavy and wide. Josh Hazlewood recently noted that the team will win public trust and admiration on the field, not off it; what better way to start than right now?
Pakistan’s tour match standout, Abid Ali, is a first-class veteran and not in the Test squad. Since they toured Australia two summers ago, Pakistan have played only eight Tests, including a one-all tour of England most recently.
Mohammad Abbas, right-arm quick, man of the series in England, and with a sub-20 Test bowling average after eight matches, is one to watch out for. Should Fakhar Zaman get a run on his absurd ODI form he will be dangerous, as will be Yasir Shah, on his day the most threatening bowler in the world.
The last Australian team to arrive in the U.A.E. was fresh off a strong, decisive away win in South Africa, and it crumbled. For round two, the scenario couldn’t be more antithetical, more scripted. It’s a premise ripe for drama and twists as much as it is for a miserable loss to kick off the summer.