Pakistan 255 for 3 (Hafeez 126, Imam 76, Siddle 1-23) v Australia
DUBAI: The scorecard suggested nearly total domination from Pakistan. After all, they finished the day at 255 for 3, thanks to a 205-run opening stand from Mohammad Hafeez and Imam-ul-Haq. They made Australia wait for the opening wicket in the first innings of a Test longer than they’ve ever done – 63 overs, to be precise.
And yet, anyone who tuned into the final session would have wondered how Pakistan had amassed those runs, so complete was the Australian bowlers’ command. Pakistan scored 56 runs in 29 overs for the loss of three wickets in that session on an attrition first day in Dubai.
Test cricket in the UAE is a game of phases. In other parts of the world, it might be harder for teams to get back into the game once they’ve fallen behind, but surfaces here give teams an opportunity to bounce back. And so, even as Hafeez, who scored a century in his first Test in two years, and Imam accumulated the fifth-highest opening stand batting first against Australia, the visitors’ bowlers came roaring back into the contest, with a chance of bowling Pakistan out under 350.
It began with Nathan Lyon, expected to grow in importance as the game and the pitch wears on, tempting Imam to cut a ball that was a bit too full, drawing a faint edge through to Tim Paine. At the other end, Peter Siddle bowled a scintillating spell, justifying his inclusion in the side. Vicious reverse swing combined with relentless accuracy slowed down Pakistan’s merry progress. Siddle finally got one to beat Hafeez’s defences, with a beauty that just kept coming in, hitting the opener halfway up his shin, right in front of middle.
With both openers gone, Pakistan’s scoring rate almost ground to a halt altogether – at one stage, they managed 16 runs in 16 overs as Haris Sohail and Azhar Ali dug in, desperate to see it through to stumps. All that work, however, was undone by a moment of madness from Azhar. Having gutted his way to 18 off 79, he lofted a drive off Jon Holland, nowhere near middling it as Mitchell Starc dived forward to complete the catch. Nightwatchman Mohammad Abbas and Haris took their side to stumps without any further damage.
Pakistan had settled into a formidable position by the first evening on a flat Dubai surface, with both openers still around when tea was called. Hafeez, who scored his tenth Test century was instrumental in pushing the run rate up right from the outset, and ensuring the Australians were always on the back foot. He regularly forced the bowlers to adjust their lines and coaxed Tim Paine into introducing spin as early as the ninth over in the day. He wasn’t afraid to come down the track against spin, either, without losing control of his shots.
The run rate picked up after lunch as the openers shook off any nerves or fears they might have had about the pitch or the Australian attack. Hafeez also went after Nathan Lyon, who was the most economical bowler for Australia in the first session. There was a period, midway through, when he lost his focus, playing a series of false shots, displaying the concentration lapses that have prevented him taking the next step in his career and becoming the batsman he could have become. While the sun beat down, lady luck, too, was smiling at him, as a lofted cover drive off Holland was put down at long-off.
Imam’s innings, meanwhile, was almost chanceless. He appeared to be mentally ready for the grind of Test cricket in this inhospitable weather. His footwork against the spin, in particular, was excellent, moving back and forward to the rhythm of the pitch of the ball with the deft expertise of a tap dancer. However, It wasn’t just in service of defensive strokes, with a couple of charges down the pitch against Holland earning him two sixes.
Australia bowled well despite the unhelpful conditions, with Starc the most menacing for much of the day, getting swing early on while regularly coming close to finding Hafeez’s outside edge. The odd yorker kept the batsmen on their toes, and on another day in another country, he might have finished with a five-wicket haul. Here, he ended the day wicketless.
But the day would end on a very different note. Life seemed to have crept back into this pitch, and, by extension, this Test match.