The time for talking, white-ball cricket and reminiscing on a long northern summer is over, because the home summer is here, as Australia get set to take on Pakistan in the first of two Tests at the Gabba.
The horrors of last summer’s trouncing at the hands of India are nothing but a distant memory, with the home side back to full strength and set to take on a Pakistani team who have some exciting young prospects and one of the best batsmen in the world at their disposal.
Pakistan have long struggled in Australia though, and while the team have undergone a ‘changing of the guard’ if you will since they last visited the land down under, the history and mismatch on paper in these conditions still remains.
Former stalwart and captain Misbah-ul-Haq is now the coach and chief selector for Pakistan on a three-year contract, but his tenure, which got underway in September, is off to a less than impressive start.
While this will be his first Test match in charge, he has lost T20 series to both Sri Lanka and Australia, the former at home and the second in conditions which his team needs to adapt to.
The one positive Pakistan can take is their performances in the tour games leading up to the first Test, where they overcame both a fairly strong Australia A, and a much weaker CA XI, with both of those games played on bouncy tracks in Perth.
Their bowling performance in the Australia A game, where their youthful pace attack managed to knock over a side including Test hopefuls Marcus Harris, Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja, Travis Head and Cameron Bancroft for 122 after themselves racking up 428, was mighty impressive.
But, playing tour games and Test matches are very different challenges, and this is clearly an era of change for Pakistan, with Azhar Ali taking over the captaincy from the sacked and dropped Sarfaraz Ahmed.
While all the signs point to Pakistan being vulnerable, especially at the Gabba, where Australia have held a fortress over the years, it’d be unfair to say Australia are ticking along at their peak.
Even though Australia had six T20 wins to start the summer over Pakistan and Sri Lanka, there is cause for concern given the Australia A game, and the fact most of their runs in the drawn (but retained) Ashes series, came either off the blade of Steve Smith or Marnus Labuschagne.
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Sure, the conditions are very different in Australia and England, but Justin Langer’s side have a lot to work on before they are at the peak of their powers, and chief among them is settling on a batting order who will get an extended crack, without chopping and changing it at every opportunity.
There is a hope the Gabba will be the start of that, with Australia playing something near their best cricket, but for that to happen, David Warner needs to rediscover his red ball touch and adapt to bowlers following Stuart Broad’s lead around the wicket, the bowlers need to be strong, and others in the batting list need to stand up.
At the time of writing, the weather forecast is good for all five days, so there should be little chance of a draw.
The stats below won’t tell the whole story on just how abysmal Pakistan’s form in Australia has been either. Australia have won all of the last 14 Tests at home against Pakistan. There isn’t even a draw in that lot. The last loss for Australia at home against Pakistan was in 1995.
Overall record: Played 64, Australia 31, Pakistan 15, drawn 18
Overall record in Australia: Played 35, Australia 24, Pakistan 4, drawn 7
Overall record at The Gabba: Played 5, Australia 4, Pakistan 0, drawn 1
Overall series record: Played 23, Australia 11, Pakistan 7, drawn 5
Overall series record in Australia: Played 12, Australia 9, Pakistan 0, drawn 3
Last five series
2018: Pakistan won 1-0 in UAE (two-Test series)
2016-17: Australia won 3-0 in Australia (three-Test series)
2014: Pakistan won 2-0 in UAE (two-Test series)
2010: Series drawn 1-1 in England (two-Test series)
2009-10: Australia won 3-0 in Australia (three-Test series)
Last five matches in Australia
Dec 15-19 2016: Australia won by 39 runs at the Gabba (D/N)
Dec 26-30 2016: Australia won by an innings and 18 runs at the MCG
Jan 3-7 2017: Australia won by 220 runs at the SCG
Jan 14-18 2010: Australia won by 231 runs at Bellerive Oval
Jan 3-6 2010: Australia won by 36 runs at the SCG
Last five matches at The Gabba
Dec 15-19, 2016: Australia won by 39 runs
Nov 5-9, 1999: Australia won by 10 wickets
Nov 9-13, 1995: Australia won by an innings and 126 runs
Nov 25-29, 1983: Match drawn
Nov 27 – Dec 1, 1981: Australia won by 10 wickets
Team news, likely XIs and squads
Australia took the odd step of naming a 14-man squad for a home Test, but that has since been reduced to 13 with the suspension of James Pattinson.
His exit makes the selection question a little clearer for the Aussie selectors, with it being likely that the big three will be selected as the pace bowlers.
While Michael Neser is also in the squad, it’s thought Mitchell Starc will get the first crack for the summer to partner Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins.
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Nathan Lyon will be the spinner, while most of the batting order is locked in, with the only question to be answered on the final team sheet being whether Joe Burns or Cameron Bancroft partners David Warner at the top.
Burns form has been far ahead of the struggling Bancroft, so it should be the Queenslander to open up, while Travis Head and Matthew Wade play in the middle order to keep Bancroft out of the side.
1. David Warner
2. Joe Burns
3. Marnus Labuschagne
4. Steve Smith
5. Travis Head
6. Matthew Wade
7. Tim Paine (c, wk)
8. Pat Cummins
9. Mitchell Starc
10. Nathan Lyon
11. Josh Hazlewood
Rest of the squad: Cameron Bancroft, Michael Neser, James Pattinson
There are plenty of spots which were up in the air coming into this tour for Pakistan. Azhar Ali, Mohammad Rizwan, Yasir Shah and Mohammad Abbas were all locked into the XI for the Gabba Test, but arguments could be made about virtually every other spot in the side.
Shan Masood, Asad Shafiq and Babar Azam all locked themselves away with high-quality performances against Australia A though, the latter two scoring centuries in the middle order.
After three failures in tour matches, Haris Sohail is unlikely to take first drop, although the options to replace him are limited, with Abid Ali failing against the CA XI. Imam-ul-Haq managed to score 40 in that match though, so probably takes the spot.
Given he can open, there is a fair chance he might open with Ali at three, but the skipper will want to solidify the starts for his side.
Number six looks like a two-way battle between Iftikhar Ahmed and 33-year-old all-rounder Kashif Bhatti, who is yet to be called on at Test level, but may be pushed into the side here.
The two remaining bowling spots are also points of contention. 16-year-old tearaway quick Naseem Shah has firmed for one spot, while Shaheen Afridi and Imran Khan will battle for the other. They shared the new ball against Australia A, and both bowled strongly.
1. Azhar Ali (c)
2. Shan Masood
4. Asad Shafiq
5. Babar Azam
6. Kashif Bhatti
7. Mohammad Rizwan (wk)
8. Yasir Shah
9. Mohammad Abbas
10. Shaheen Afridi
11. Naseem Shah
Rest of the squad: Iftikhar Ahmed, Abid Ali, Imran Khan, Muhammad Musa, Haris Sohail
Keys to the match
Steve Smith. Stop him or be beaten
There is no question that Steve Smith is the best batsman in the world right now. Despite only playing four Tests and giving everyone else a headstart, he already has the most runs in 2019 with 774, and was phenomenal in the Ashes.
Not only that, but his World Cup campaign beforehand was outstanding and his form back at home, whether playing Sheffield Shield cricket or T20s for Australia, has been just as good.
On pitches where Pakistan’s bowlers are going to struggle, and at the familiar Gabba, where Smith averages 71.8 and has gone past 100 in his last two innings, he could have a field day.
The extra bounce and pace which is generally on offer at the Gabba makes it so easy for him to play his leg side game, while anything full will be plundered on the drive because the bounce is so true.
It would seem Yasir Shah and a brain explosion, or the niggling consistency of Mohammed Abbas might be the best way to get Smith out, but even that is staying patient in the right area and hoping for a mistake, rather than actually having a solidified plan.
The problem, of course, is that Smith likes batting and scoring runs for fun, and if Pakistan don’t remove him early, they could do a lot of chasing leather off the blade of the former Aussie skipper.
(Photo by Visionhaus)
What can Pakistan’s youthful pace attack bring to the table?
When you compare the two pace attacks for this series, it’s night and day.
One one side, you have veterans who are used to Australian conditions, and as recently as 24 months ago, were labelled the best bowling attack in the world.
On the other side of the coin, you have a toiler in Abbas who is great at home, but not so in these conditions, to go with a 16-year-old and likely, a 19-year-old.
It’s a huge difference, and there is almost no doubt Pakistan’s youngsters will get roped into bowling too short, and becoming impatient as they try to search for wickets.
What they do have though, is pace. Shaheen has the tendency to go for runs, but takes wickets, while Naseem is an unknown quantity at this stage, but has impressed in his seven first class games, and took 1 for 21 on the final day against Australia A, although wasn’t so good against the CA XI.
The bottom line is that, with so much inexperience, they are going to struggle to be consistent and will rely on moments of magic. The question will be, how often can they make those moments of magic happen?
Azhar Ali needs a huge series if Pakistan are to succeed
The Pakistan batting line-up, in many ways, looks fragile. Any Pakistan batting line-up coming to Australia looks fragile though, and it’ll be down to their captain to lead from the front.
In much the same way Steve Smith scored a truckload of runs during the Ashes, Azhar Ali is going to need a similar series here if Pakistan are to go anywhere, or do anything of note.
The 34-year-old opening batsman has only toured Australia once, but had a lot of fun last time out, going past 50 in three of his six innings, racking up a double century and scoring 406 runs in three matches.
He will need more consistency this time around, and probably needs to go past 50 each time he steps over the boundary, but his role is so much more challenging this time.
He needs to be able to work with the rest of his batting order, get through the tough times and at the very least, ensure the Aussie bowlers are coming back for their second spell by the time he departs, giving his teammates a chance in unfamiliar and challenging conditions.
(AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
The battle of the spinners will be intriguing
So often in Australia, spin takes an enormous back seat, due to the nature of the pitches and conditions.
While that is strictly true, they played more of a role in the series against India last year, with pitches generally being on the slower side.
But now, with most of the country gripped by drought and a lack of rainfall, pitches should be fairly flat and maybe take turn towards the back end of the contest.
Even on pitches like that though, having a spinner who can hold down an end, bowl consistently, stay patient and be happy not to concede runs is a much-needed attribute for any side.
Brisbane is a deck which normally will take some turn, but it often suits Nathan Lyon because of the extra bounce he can generate. Add that to the fact he has learnt over the years how to bowl spin in Australian conditions, and it’s advantage Australia.
But, one of the few spinners from around the world who should, on paper at least, perform in Aussie conditions, is Yasir Shah.
While he is great at home, he was economical in the Perth tour games and seemed to have adapted, unlike last time he bowled here, when he was carted to all parts in a series where he only took 8 for 672 at an economy of four and a half per over.
If there is a repeat of those stats in either match, then Australia are going to be miles ahead. It releases the pressure and makes the pace bowlers bowl a lot more overs.
(Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
Key game information: Australia vs Pakistan, first Test
Dates: Thursday, November 21 – Monday, November 25
First ball: 11am (AEDT)
Expected daily finish time: 6pm (AEDT)
Venue: The Gabba, Brisbane, Queensland
TV: Live, Fox Cricket 501 and Channel 7
Online: Live, Kayo Sports, Foxtel App, Foxtel Now, Plus7
Umpires: Richard Kettleborough and Richard Illingworth
Hours of play
||11am – 1pm
||10:30am – 12:30pm
||10am – 12pm
||9:30am – 11:30am
||8am – 10am
||1pm – 1:40pm
||12:30pm – 1:10pm
||12pm – 12:40pm
||11:30am – 12:10pm
||10am – 10:40am
||1:40pm – 3:40pm
||1:10pm – 3:10pm
||12:40pm – 2:40pm
||12:10pm – 2:10pm
||10:40am – 12:40pm
||3:40pm – 4pm
||3:10pm – 3:30pm
||2:40pm – 3pm
||2:10pm – 2:30pm
||12:40pm – 1pm
||4pm – 6pm
||3:30pm – 5:30pm
||3pm – 5pm
||2:30pm – 4:30pm
||1pm – 3pm
Note: Hours of play are subject to change. 30 minutes per day are available for slow hour rates, as well as one hour for inclement weather and other delays. Half an hour of this may be added to the start of a day to make up for lost time on a previous day.
Australia are just so good in their own conditions against teams who aren’t. That wasn’t the case last summer, of course, but back at full strength against a struggling Pakistan on their fortress Gabba, it’s hard to see the Australian’s not picking up the win here.
Watch for Steve Smith and David Warner to go big, and the pace bowlers to have a field day as Pakistan’s inexperienced attack try to learn the conditions and what Test cricket is really all about.
Australia – in a canter.
Stay across all the action from The Oval as The Roar cover the match with our live scores, blog and highlights of each day’s play.