Australia vs Pakistan 2022 Burning Questions
Australia vs Pakistan 2022 Burning Questions
After 24 years, Australia is back in Pakistan. They will compete for the Benaud-Qadir Trophy, after the new silverware was announced on Wednesday. How Benaud would smile to see another leg-spinner picked by Australia.
Or will Australia’s selectors take the “soft option”, as Kerry O’Keeffe would say?
With the series to start in Rawalpindi, here are five burning questions that will prove decisive in Australia’s ambitions to leave the region with success, as the post-Justin Langer world commences.
PAKISTAN CUMMINS’ FIRST FRONTIER
For Australia’s cricketers of the early 2000s, conquering the subcontinent was the final frontier.
Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist’s men of 2004 did what Steve Waugh’s side of 2001 failed to do by winning in Sri Lanka and then India.
The subcontinent has been the graveyard for Australian cricket.
Now Pat Cummins – the first Australian captain in more than half-a-century – will travel to the subcontinent.
Not to India or Sri Lanka, but to a country Australia has not ventured in 24 years.
Success in Pakistan too has been hard to come by.
Against the rabble that was England, Cummins and his men found it a walk in the park.
A mere blow and the English order crumbled. For all the talk and hype that comes with an Ashes series, it was an incredibly one-sided series. Pakistan will mark Cummins’ first frontier. The fact he is a fast bowler will pose challenges.
He could be helped by coolish conditions in Islamabad, particularly with the first Test wicket at Rawalpindi typically offering assistance to the quicks.
But challenges, particularly how his batters go about their work and he uses his spinners (let’s remember he didn’t give Nathan Lyon the ball in Hobart in the fifth Ashes Test), will be fascinating.
Themes like patience, synonymous with Test cricket but were rarely on display throughout the Ashes, will be required.
“That’s Test cricket, you’ve got to expect that it’s going to go for five days,” Cummins said upon arrival in Islamabad.
“I feel like this summer wasn’t as taxing physically as previous summers just because not every Test went for five days, but the majority of my career that’s what I feel like I’ve played.
“I feel well equipped, it’s only 90 overs in a day, so the old saying, ‘take it one day at a time’.
“But it’s certainly something to be conscious of and we want to make sure that we’re the team that can outlast the opposition.”
Cummins’ smooth response was yet another tick against his name when handling unique challenges.
The world’s best quick doesn’t overcomplicate his sentences and he will need that clear head throughout the series.
How he relies on Steve Smith will be fascinating too.
Smith says he doesn’t crave the captaincy.
If he was in Australian politics, Cummins would be in trouble.
“No, I’m happy with where everything’s at at the moment,” Smith said.
“I think Patrick’s doing a terrific job. I’m enjoying being his deputy and helping him in any way have success.
“I think we worked really well over the summer and now we’ve got an opportunity to work together away from home and I’m looking forward to that challenge as well.”
Fortunately it is not politics, though Cummins made it clear that he was the leader despite admitting he will lean on his deputy for advice when it comes to field settings.
“We’ll see how it goes, but I’ll certainly be leading, not him,” Cummins said.
“He’s played a lot over here and also captained a lot here in the subcontinent.
“Absolutely I’ll be leaning on him, especially out on the field, field placements for spin bowlers.
“He’s got a different view of the field at first slip as to what I might have, so for sure I’ll be leaning on him.”
WILL THIS BE THE RETURN OF STEVE SMITH?
We know the story: Steve Smith has not been doing Steve Smith things. He must be out of form, right?
Since Smith’s extraordinary Ashes campaign in 2019 – Australia’s last Test tour – he has averaged a modest 36.86.
For England’s batsmen, a record like that would make front page news.
For Smith, however, who averaged a remarkable 64.56 in the proceeding 68 Tests, questions are being asked at every turn why his average has been almost halved.
It has become a national obsession, back page news.
The man who churned out centuries for fun has made just one since leaving England in 2019.
Even against the Poms, a size he scored a double century and twin hundreds less than three years ago, he did not make one in his own backyard in the recent 4-0 series domination.
But is Smith out of form? Not exactly, he’s just out of big run-scoring form.
“No, I’m feeling good,” he said on Tuesday. “I feel I’m in a good place and hitting the ball nicely. No concerns from me.”
He scored two half-centuries throughout the Ashes and fell just seven runs short of three-figures in Adelaide.
Why that is, is perhaps because of his rhythm.
Smith is at his best when he is scoring freely.
When he arrived in the heat of the battle at Edgbaston after his year’s absence, Smith attacked from the outset. He drove and freed his arms.
Since then, juicy than usual wickets and short-pitched bowling, off the back of being felled by Jofra Archer in 2019, have ruffled his feathers.
The scoring rate has dried up.
He showed signs of getting back to his best in Sydney when he made 67 and backed it up with a free-flowing 23 in the second innings.
Has playing second fiddle to Marnus Labuschagne hindered his progress? Perhaps.
For years Smith was out in the middle before he had time to have a cup of tea.
Labuschagne’s rise to the world No.1 Test batsman has meant Smith has often found himself coming in with the innings set up.
As Steve Waugh used to say, he would prefer coming in at 3-50 than 3-300. It’s a mentality shift.
Smith returns to the subcontinent where he is the only Australian to have success with the bat.
As others struggled, Smith has managed to average 60 in India and more than 40 in Sri Lanka and the UAE.
After shaking off a concussion scare from last month, Smith returned to the nets and faced fast bowling for the first time in more than a fortnight on Tuesday.
He will likely return to his obsessive practice regime to rediscover his batting flow, while the Australia vice-captain hopes to continue where he left off in his last overseas Test series.
“I love getting on a roll and playing a lot of cricket and just finding my groove,” he said.
“It’s been an odd couple of years, hasn’t it. This is our first away tour since the Ashes in 2019, which is hard to fathom.
“But we’re excited again to play away and challenging ourselves in foreign conditions and that’s something I pride myself on is my performance away from home. Obviously the last away tour I performed really well in the Ashes and I hope I can replicate something pretty similar in this series.
“I’m feeling good at the moment, I’m in a nice place, so hopefully a good preparation over the next few days and then hopefully some big runs this series.”
WHAT ATTACK WILL AUSTRALIA TAKE INTO THE FIRST TEST?
Australia might have selected three specialist spinners in their 18-man squad, but it is more than likely selectors will resist the urge of picking two let alone three slow bowlers.
History suggests the deck they will play on favours fast bowlers.
In the Test held at the venue 13 months ago, nine of the 10 second innings wickets were taken by fast bowling duo Shaheem Shah Afridi and Hasan Ali, as Pakistan defeated South Africa by 90 runs.
On Wednesday, Nathan Lyon gave a subtle club about what attack Australia might take into the match.
The veteran spinner – a curator in his former life – said that the ball was not turning like they might have expected it to on the decks either side of the pitch out in the middle.
Another couple of days under the sun could see the pitch start to deteriorate early, but Lyon’s comments won’t be ignored.
Lyon remains the first-choice spinner.
Despite Brendon Julian floating the idea the veteran off-spinner could be dropped in favour of Ashton Agar or Mitch Swepson, it would be a gamble and completely change the team dynamic to leave him out.
More than likely, Australia will return to what has worked in the past: an attack featuring new-ball bowlers Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Cummins, with Green a competent fourth seamer.
That decision would force Scott Boland out of the XI, who took an astonishing 18 wickets at 9.55 against England during his debut series.
“It’s going to be a tough one,” Cummins told reporters on Sunday.
“Scotty Boland came in and bowled fantastically. We know how good Joshy is, Starcy.
“Of us four quick bowlers, you can probably own three, so I’ll leave that to the selectors.
“There’s going to be some tough calls.
“It’s one of the blessings of having 15-16 guys who have all performed recently and done fantastically well – there’s going to be some unlucky decisions made but that’s professional sport.”
Respect, trust and experience is heavily favoured in the Australian team and Hazlewood has earnt the right to return after being injured for the final four Ashes Tests.
Early on in the Ashes, it was Hazlewood who landed a couple of killer blows on the English and peg them on the back foot. They never recovered.
Should Australia go in with just two specialist quicks and rely on Green to roll the arm over, it would be a toss up between Hazlewood and Starc.
But given Starc’s left-arm variation, raw pace, and ability to reverse swing the ball, as well score consistent lower-order runs, Hazlewood could miss out.
If they were to play a second spinner, Agar could beat Swepson.
As dispiriting as that would be for Swepson, Agar’s experience, strong international record, ability to take the ball away from the right-hander and have others slide on, and usefulness with the bat won’t be underestimated.
More recently, accurate left-arm tweakers have had huge success in the subcontinent and Pakistan’s right-hand heavy top order will not be ignored.
Hard on Swepson? Absolutely given the amount of time he has spent with the Australian team.
But as Lyon commented on Wednesday, there are three tours to the subcontinent over the next 12 months and having the trio in the squad together will allow them flexibility and options.
The fact Australia has two competent leg-spinning options in the top four can’t be underestimated.
Smith and Labuschagne are better than part-time options.
Both have a good stock ball and Labuschagne’s extra pace through the air could prove lethal – just as it did on the UAE decks in 2018 during the Queenslander’s debut series.
IS AUSTRALIA IN FOR A RUDE SHOCK?
Nothing will be as easy as the recent Ashes.
They were shambolic in every facet of the game and the high performance team has unsurprisingly had a broom put through it.
Pakistan will represent a stern test.
As Brendon Julian predicted, it could be a toss of the coin. It’s “50-50,” he said.
Australia’s record in the subcontinent is horrendous.
They have not won a series in India since 2004, while they were well-beaten on their last trip to Sri Lanka.
Against Pakistan in the UAE in 2018, Australia lost 1-0 and were saved by an epic Usman Khawaja century.
As Julian said last week, “the batting holds the key”.
With the exception of Smith, Australia’s batters have typically struggled.
Khawaja’s stand in the sand was the exception.
Warner has historically struggled, while Labuschagne and Head are relatively unproven in the subcontinent.
For Green and Carey, both men will play their maiden Tests away from home.
Pakistan will be out to shock Australia early.
Undoubtedly the crowds will be ferocious and silencing them will be vital for Australia’s hopes.
What could cruel Pakistan’s hopes is the recent Covid-19 cluster.
They will be crossing their fingers Shaheem Shah Afridi is not a late withdrawal after he was seated next to Australian spin consultant Fawad Ahmed on their way to the series from the Pakistan Super League.
Afridi can rattle Australia’s lineup.
If there was one aspect that continually troubled Australia throughout the Ashes, it was the extra pace from Mark Wood.
Ben Stokes’ short-pitch bowling occasionally rattled Labuschagne and Smith, but it was Wood that had all the Australians not quite sure of themselves.
Afridi’s ability to swing the ball and hit the speed gun at 150km/h can muddle Warner’s footwork particularly.
Removing the Australian opener is the key for Pakistan’s hopes.
Babar Azam’s class with the bat is undeniable, but he will need to score big.
Either way, Australia won’t have it all their way throughout the series.
Starting well will be the key.
They won’t win from behind, especially with the pitches expected to take more spin as the series goes on.
THE TOUR THAT WILL DEFINE UZZY’S CAREER
The stop-start career of Usman Khawaja is about to have another chapter added to it.
It promises to be the most decisive of all – how apt that he will return to the country of his birth.
The 35-year-old from Islamabad started his Test career more than a decade ago.
His 37 on debut stepping in for Ricky Ponting was supposed to be the start of something special.
Since then though, Khawaja has played just another 45 Tests.
His average of 42.45 with 10 centuries is acceptable enough, but the stats show a grid of mountains and troughs.
Khawaja says he feels every Test from now on is a “bonus”, but Australia’s tour of Pakistan can define his Test career and how he is remembered.
At 35, the end is closer than the beginning for Khawaja.
But in a region of the world Australia has had little success, the left-hander can cement his name in cricket folklore by carving out a series to remember.
With two more tours to the subcontinent over the next 12 months, having a successful series is vital not just for Khawaja but Australia.