DUBAI: Pakistan’s hopes of coming at Australia with a rare two-legspinner combination have taken a hit with Shadab Khan all but ruled out of the opening Test in Dubai on Sunday. Shadab has yet to recover from a groin injury he picked up during the Asia Cup, though Pakistan remain hopeful he will be fit for the second Test in Abu Dhabi.
In his place, the off spinning allrounder Bilal Asif is set for a Test debut. And it also all but guarantees a return to the side for Mohammad Hafeez, discarded and disgruntled earlier this year after being axed from the ODI side, but now back for a first Test in over two years. As much as his runs, Pakistan will look to Hafeez’s overs against an Australia top six that includes three left-handers.
Nevertheless, Shadab’s absence will come as a blow. Earlier this summer, while Pakistan were on tour to England, Mickey Arthur was relishing the prospect of unleashing Yasir Shah and Shadab in tandem at teams in the UAE.
That tour was a breakthrough of sorts for Shadab in the longer format. Though his numbers shine with bat in hand – three fifties across the three Tests in swinging conditions – there were signs that his leg spin was developing too. He was far from the finished product, but a vast improvement from his Test debut in Bridgetown in April 2017.
Pakistan have not been historically averse to playing two legspinners in the same Test XI. Abdul Qadir and Mushtaq Ahmed played a Test together in 1990against West Indies; Mushtaq played a couple of Tests with Danish Kaneria in 2003. And though Shahid Afridi counts as an allrounder, his leg spin accompanied that of Kaneria in as many as 17 Tests. In the 60s and 70s, Intikhab Alam and Mushtaq Mohammad played together many times, both allrounders strictly speaking but both also legspinners.
Spin was the major factor in Pakistan’s 2-0 triumph when Australia last toured the UAE four years ago. Yasir, Zulfiqar Babar and Hafeez took 30 of the 40 Australian wickets in that series.
Pakistan are considering another debutant in Mir Hamza, the left-arm fast bowler who could partner Mohammad Abbas in a two-man pace attack. With Mohammad Amir out of the picture, the choice would appear to be between the returning Wahab Riaz and Hamza, but the former’s low impact for Pakistan ‘A’ in the warm-up game may work against his inclusion.
LABUSCHAGNE, NESER LIKELY TO BE AMONG FOUR DEBUTANTS FOR AUSTRALIA
Australia may field as many as four debutants – Aaron Finch, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne and Michael Neser – in their first Test since the Newlands ball-tampering scandal, the most in a single match since the World Series Cricket split four decades ago.
Two days out from the opening Test against Pakistan in Dubai, Finch and Head are certain to play, while the Queensland pair of Labuschagne and Neser are looking increasingly likely to join them.
It would be a particularly swift rise for Labuschagne, once again due to Renshaw’s misadventures. He was only included in the first-class portion of the recent Australia A tour of India when Renshaw strained a hamstring, and a pair of handy scores in the last match before the squad was picked vaulted Labuschagne above the likes of Peter Handscomb and Glenn Maxwell.
Labuschagne’s inclusion would necessitate a reshuffle of the batting order, with Finch opening alongside Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh at No. 3, vice-captain Mitchell Marsh at No. 4 and Head followed by Labuschagne at Nos. 5 and 6. This would also create a right-left mix well down towards the tail, with captain Tim Paine and spearhead Mitchell Starc at Nos. 7 and 8.