A host of Test candidates butchered opportunities to press their claims as Australia A floundered against Pakistan over the past two days at Perth Stadium.
First, the home attack was flayed by Babar Azam (157) and Asad Shafiq (119), who put on an unbeaten stand of 276 at nearly four runs an over before they both retired to let their teammates have a bat.
Then Australia A’s batting line-up fell apart in embarrassing fashion, reduced to 9-57 by an understrength attack missing their best bowler, Mohammad Abbas, as well as the recently-retired Mohammad Amir.
The hosts were torn apart by seamer Imran Khan, who took 2-154 at a whopping run rate of 4.66 in his sole Test in Australia, and batting all-rounder Iftikhar Ahmed’s gentle off-breaks. Last night, Khan ended with 5-32 and Ahmed 2-6.
It was a particularly woeful effort when you consider the generous strength of the Aussie batting line-up, how much they each had to play for, and how well the pitch had played during the Pakistan innings.
Each member of the local top-six seemed a chance of playing in the first Test eight days from now. What, then, can the selectors glean from this trainwreck performance?
First, Queensland opener Joe Burns was out for a golden duck, bowled through the gate playing a lazy drive. Then Test incumbent opener Marcus Harris was castled as he played all around a full ball from left-arm quick Shaheen Afridi.
Harris’ main issue in his debut Test season last summer was needlessly slashing at wide balls but now he is looking increasingly vulnerable on off stump. England’s quicks tormented him on that line and Pakistan will look to replicate that should he be picked.
Soon after Harris departed, so too did Usman Khawaja. The veteran left hander is in a deep form trough in red-ball cricket, having made 65 runs at 11 so far this summer. In spite of his fantastic home Test record – 1854 runs at 53 – Khawaja is making himself almost unpickable.
Unless he comes out and plays a sparkling knock today – assuming he gets an opportunity for a second bat – it is hard to see him making his Test comeback after being axed during the Ashes.
With Pakistan deciding to bat again, none of Australia’s candidates may get a second crack.
Travis Head has a stronger case than Khawaja for a recall, after making a ton in his last Shield game and averaging 43 over his 12 Tests this past year.
Yet he also did himself no favours yesterday, donating his wicket with a terribly loose shot, cutting an innocuous delivery from Ahmed straight to point.
Victorian batting prodigy Will Pucovski then nicked behind from a Khan delivery that seemed to surprise him with extra lift. The 21-year-old has now made scores of 5, 3, 7 and 2 after making a hot start to the Shield season.
If he was in blazing touch there would be some merit in giving him an early look at Test cricket. But right now Pucovski appears better served continuing his apprenticeship in the Shield. There is no rush.
Earlier, Australia’s bowlers were impotent against Babar and Shafiq.
Realistically, neither Sean Abbott (0-84 from 24 overs) nor Riley Meredith (2-105 off 18 overs) are Test standard paceman, but this match could have vaulted Jhye Richardson or Michael Neser into the Test XI. Had one of them shredded the Pakistan batting line-up they may well have got the nod ahead of Mitchell Starc.
While both Richardson (3-79 from 29 overs) and Neser (2-57 from 27 overs) were economical, the fact they had no impact until Babar and Shafiq retired won’t have escaped the selectors’ notice.
Starc’s haul of 10-60 in his last Shield match will likely see him join Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood in the first Test.
Thus far, this match has been a major missed opportunity for more than half the local prospects.