DUBAI: It might not be the first time Pakistan take on Australia with one team extremely low on confidence and credibility, bruised by accusations of cheating, with several key players – including the captain – serving bans, and with integrity injured and reputation ruined. Add to that disenfranchisement among the fans at home, and a general lack of belief in the team to pull out a result through sheer force of will and a never-say-die attitude. It might be the first time, though, for that team to be Australia.
Following the ball-tampering saga in South Africa earlier this year, a much-changed Australian side prepares to take on Pakistan in a two-Test series in the UAE. It would have been a daunting enough challenge for Steven Smith, David Warner and co. (indeed it was when they visited in 2014 that Pakistan cruised to a 2-0 win), but this Tim Paine-led side is more decidedly second-favourite than Australia have ever been against Pakistan.
The warm-up game, which Australia dominated, can be largely set aside; Pakistan, somewhat churlishly, refused to play any frontline spinners in a bid to retain the mystery ahead of the first Test. Australia will be encouraged to see Nathan Lyon take eight wickets in the first innings there, but he will need quality back-up in the spin department if Australia are to mount a serious challenge. Jon Holland will feature, while debutant Travis Head could use his offspin to Australia’s advantage. All said, three Australians – Head, Aaron Finch and Marnus Labuschagne – will make their debuts in Dubai on Sunday.
Pakistan aren’t exactly oozing confidence either, though. After a poor Asia Cup campaign in the UAE, they decided to drop Mohammad Amir, who once upon a time would have been expected to be a key figure in the outcome of the Test series. They haven’t played much Test cricket of late to draw too many inferences, but the long-term pattern is rather unflattering: 10 losses and six wins over the past two years have seen Pakistan undo much of the good work that peaked with an extraordinary rise to the top of the rankings. The last time they played Test cricket here, they were blanked by Sri Lanka 2-0, the first series Mickey Arthur’s men lost in the UAE since relocating in 2009. It is a result that sounds especially plaintive in light of the Sri Lankan team’s plight of late.
There isn’t too much evidence that a corner has been turned, or even that a corner is close enough for Pakistan to have the indicator lights on.
YASIR TARGETS 20 AUSTRALIAN SCALPS, SERIES WIN
Match-winning Pakistan spinner Yasir Shah has sent a warning to Australia’s batsmen that he is targeting 20 wickets and a win in the two-match Test series.
The 32-year-old has been Pakistan’s main spin weapon since making his Test debut against Australia at the same venue four years ago.
He and left-armer Zulfiqar Babar took 26 wickets between them to rout Australia 2-0.
Yasir again holds the key for Pakistan in the two-match series, with the second in Abu Dhabi from October 16.
“I have a target of 20 wickets,” Yasir told AFP. “I know how important it will be to take wickets so that remains my target and for the team to win the series which is very important.”
“Australia have a few good players and a few of them I have played within the Big Bash (Australia’s Twenty20 league) so I know their strong and weak points.
“You can’t say they are weak, maybe inexperienced. They’re always a strong side. That series (in 2014) was my first and so I’m going to try to improve on that.”
Yasir, who played for Brisbane Heat last year, said he has improved his googly because it was “a bit weak”.
“I’ve been working on that. I think I’m 70-80 per cent there with the googly and that’s going to come in handy here.”
He said he was constantly analysing his bowling and always on the lookout for new techniques.
“I do look over those videos from YouTube quite a bit,” he said. “I look at how I went in those matches, analysing how it has gone and try to replicate my good deliveries.”