Heading into the first Test of the summer, all indicators would point to Australia fairly comfortably accounting for Pakistan to kick start their season.
Running the rule over recent history, form, preparation and squad stability, it’s all ticks for Tim Paine’s side ahead of this morning’s opening session.
Australia, after all, haven’t lost at the Gabba for 30 Test matches, a record stretching back to 1988. Tick. Pakistan, conversely, have never won on these shores and have lost each of the last four series 3-0. Tick again.
The Aussies come into the Test far better prepared than their opponent, having finished an Ashes series not nearly two months ago followed by strong Shield hit-outs.
Langer even admitted to a “different feeling” at the start of this Test summer, one in which his side were “more match-hardened than perhaps in the past”. Pakistan, by contrast, haven’t played Test cricket since January, where they were humbled in South Africa. Tick again to Australia.
Finally, the tourists are operating under both a new captain and new coach after a post-World Cup clearcut. As Australia knows well from 18 months ago, these wholesale changes take time to adapt and work into.
They themselves are finally entering a period of relative stability. It’s one last tick to the hosts.
Cricket, however, isn’t played on paper, and irrespective of the numerous advantages boasted by the home side, questions still linger over a batting line-up susceptible to raw pace. And this is where Pakistan could cause damage this series.
While it’s an entirely undue amount of pressure to heap onto a 16 and 19-year-old, the fact is without a firing Naseem Shah and Shaheen Afridi, it’s difficult to see them walking away as victors in Brisbane or Adelaide. The nagging consistency of Mohammad Abbas is a known quantity.
What isn’t, however, is Shah and Afridi.
And it’s this huge, exciting variable that could determine the tourists’ fate in the next fortnight.
Shah’s sudden rise, highlighted by a brutal spell to Australia A’s top order last week in Perth, has captivated the cricket world. After all, teenagers bouncing veterans is a sure fire formula to garner instant headlines.
At times in Perth the young firebrand was unplayable, causing huge issues for both Usman Khawaja and Marcus Harris. And after consistently nudging 145km/h, heads in the Australian camp would have turned fairly sharply.
Afridi, too, is a tantalising prospect who has already flexed his array of tricks on the world stage. His man-of-the-match 6/35 against Bangladesh at the World Cup, characterised by arms-wide-open celebrations made famous by the man who shares his surname, was an announcement that he had arrived on the world stage.
Shaheen Shah Afridi of Pakistan is congratulated by teammates after dismissing Joe Burns of Australia during day 3 of the Men’s Tour match between Australia A and Pakistan at Optus Stadium in Perth, Wednesday, November 13, 2019. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)
At 198cm and likewise capable of bowling well into the 140kmh mark, his pace and carry in both Brisbane and Adelaide (should he play) will similarly cause issues.
Recent series have seen Australia undone by extra pace. At the Ashes, Jofra Archer’s spell at Lord’s burst the series into life. Jasprit Bumrah proved almost unplayable here last summer, while Kagiso Rabada run amok on home soil against the Australians early last year.
It’s the young pair’s prodigious pace that could turn the series. It might even be Pakistan’s only chance.
If Australia get on top early with the bat, the endurance of both youngsters will be a huge question. Bowling coach Waqar Younis has already implored his charges to strive for consistency rather than the alluring prospect of extra bounce on Australian wickets.
Of course, Shah and Afridi aren’t the only exciting prospects in Misbah-ul-Haq’s side. Much has been made of the supremely talented Babar Azam ahead of the two-Test series, and for good reason.
Ricky Ponting said the 25-year-old was a “a very, very classy player” and one whom he was most looking forward to watching this summer.
But Australia is better placed to suppress Babar’s influence than what it is to withstand a withering spell of fast bowling. Langer would back his fast bowling trio and Nathan Lyon on home soil against almost any opponent. He would not feel the same level of confidence with his top six, who he knows is far from the finished article.
The lack of any outstanding options at number two and five before the squad was announced last week underpinned this uncertainty.
If Pakistan’s prodigious seamers can exploit that, then we may just have a series on our hands.