Across the border while India were decimating a hapless Sri Lanka, Pakistan finally hosted a top cricketing nation in a Test Series, for the first time in many years. By going ahead with this historic series, Cricket Australia and the Pakistan Cricket Board have pulled off a major breakthrough in world cricket, as Test cricket marked a return to Pakistan after many years. Following the cancellation of the England and New Zealand tours to the country last year, there was speculation of an Australian pull-out again over security concerns and this tour had looked extremely unlikely some months ago. (More Cricket News)
Last month however, Cricket Australia finally confirmed that none of its players had made themselves unavailable for the series, reassured undoubtedly by feedback from former players like Shane Watson and Darren Lehmann, who have been part of the Pakistan Super League in recent times. Credit to both countries that the tour went ahead and Pakistan would surely be hoping that it would be the first of many.
And so, an Australian Test side returned to Pakistan after 24 years, for the first Test at Rawalpindi, to a ground where Mark Taylor made his famous triple century in 1998, the last time the two teams played here.
Pakistan is the Land of Draws. More than half of all Test matches played in Pakistan so far have ended in draws. The Australians continued from where they had left off, with a seventh draw in their last nine matches there. Steve Smith lamented a “benign, dead wicket,” Wasim Akram said that as a former fast bowler he knew that it would be a draw after the second delivery and Ramiz Raja, the Chairman of the PCB said, “A drawn match is never a good advertisement for Test cricket.” And yet that’s exactly what it was – a dreary draw played out over five days, as the batsmen ground the bowlers to dust.
The Pindi Grind
A total of 1187 runs were scored in the match for the loss of just 14 wickets. Pakistan scored 728 of them for the loss of four wickets, in 296 overs. It was a grind that the Australians coming off a cakewalk Ashes win back home needed to get used to. To their credit, they buckled right down and waited for their opportunity, which finally came only in the Third Test match, a fortnight later.
Things were no different in the second Test in Karachi on yet another dead track that necessitated the Pakistan slip cordon moving a few steps forward from its usual positions within the first hour of play, as Australia batted first and ran up a mammoth total of 556 for 9. Inexplicably, Pakistan then collapsed to 148 in reply and looked dead and buried, facing a target of 507 in the fourth innings with five sessions of play left.
It was a tribute to their batting talent that they nearly got there, finishing at 443 for 7 riding a monumental 196 from skipper Babar Azam, an unbeaten 104 from wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan and a patient 96 from opener Abdullah Shafique. They would be very proud of that effort!
And so on to the third Test where Australia’s long hours of toil and perseverance finally paid off. Pakistan made 268 in the first innings collapsing yet again after a great start, losing their last seven wickets for a mere 20 runs as Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins ran through the innings. The lower middle-order collapse proved to be their undoing as they conceded a big first-innings lead to the Aussies. The fragility of the rest of their batting, once the top order was out of the way, repeatedly let Pakistan down and cost them the series.
This was in sharp contrast to the performance of the Indian lower middle order in their home series against Sri Lanka, where Rishabh Pant and Shreyas Iyer, in combination with Ravindra Jadeja, could soon be a feared combination of destructive power hitters who can turn around a Test match in no time. This potent lower-middle order, if they are able to sustain its form against opponents worldwide, was undoubtedly India’s biggest takeaway from a one-sided series. Not so for Pakistan.
Back in the third Test, the peerless Usman Khawaja’s second century of the series allowed a sporting declaration by skipper Pat Cummins late on the fourth day, backing his bowlers and leaving Pakistan a gettable target of 350. It was a brave call by the skipper considering Pakistan had scored 443 for 7 in the fourth innings in the previous Test at Karachi.
The Pakistan openers again got the innings off to a solid start at 73 for no loss by close of play and they began the fifth day with 277 to get and all 10 second-innings wickets intact. Hope remained as long as the classy Babar Azam was at the crease. But they could finally manage only 235 in the end, a solid 70 from Imam-ul-Huq and yet another fifty from the skipper notwithstanding. Nathan Lyon picked up a much-awaited five-wicket haul and Pat Cummins did the rest as Australia romped to victory in the last session of play.
Khawaja’s Dream Run
The story of this series would remain incomplete without talking about Usman Khwaja’s fairy tale run of 496 runs from five innings, at an average of 124. Continuing his amazing comeback from his twin centuries in the Sydney Ashes Test, followed by a 90 in the next Test Match at Hobart, the Pakistan-born Khawaja, who scored 97 in the first Test at Rawalpindi struck 160 and 44 not out in the second at Karachi. Not content, he went on to make 91 and 104 in the third Test, in a ‘Bradmanesque’ display.
In five Test matches since his return to the Australian side in January this year, the left-hander has incredibly, notched up four 100s and three 90s. If someone were to have told him that a few months ago, he would have probably laughed in their face!
Out of the Australian Test team for more than two years, the 35-year-old Khwaja made his way back into the Test XI for the Sydney Test against England, only because Travis Head, then well ahead of him in the pecking order for the Australian No. 5 batting spot, tested positive for Covid.
A couple of months later, returning to the country of his birth as part of the first Australian tour to Pakistan in 24 years, he was living out a dream. Having first forced his way into the Test side on the strength of an outstanding domestic season 11 years ago, he became the first Muslim to win an Australian Test cap. Last year, it was once again his solid domestic form, captaining Queensland to the Sheffield Shield title, which brought him back into contention for the national team. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, the stuff of sheer schoolboy fantasy.
The moment in Karachi where he raised his bat on reaching his century and the crowd acclaimed him as one of their own, was pure magic, the kind that happens only very rarely in human lives. For Khawaja, it has happened regularly over the last few unforgettable months, making up for every disappointment that he would have endured in his career until now.
Surely that would be something that he will cherish and be proud of, all his life.
(The author is retired Wing Commander of the Indian Air Force and played first-class cricket for Services. Views are personal.)