ABU DHABI: After the brilliance of Nathan Lyon came the rejuvenation of Sarfraz Ahmed. Gone was the uncertain, fidgety man apprehensive of going out to bat, and back came the street-smart cricketer who had risen through the ranks four years ago. Sarfraz the counter-puncher strode to the crease a few minutes short of the lunch break while the Pakistan batsmen fell over themselves in a hurry. And what did he do? He counter-punched, reported Cricinfo.
It was like a return to the halcyon days of 2014-15 for the Pakistan batsmen. There was a clarity of purpose in Sarfraz’s approach and he refused to take one backward step. Straight after lunch, he took the attack to Lyon, dancing down the track and carting him over midwicket. “I am in control,” he seemed to be saying at a moment when his grip over the Pakistan team has never seemed weaker.
The partnership had amounted to 147 runs before Marnus Labuschagne trapped Fakhar Zaman in front minutes before tea. Fakhar seemed to have adapted to Test cricket with the same effortlessness as he did ODI cricket a year earlier, and would be desperately disappointed to miss out on a debut hundred. He was just six runs shy, but the part-time Labuschagne, who had threatened almost whenever he’s come on, ensured the session wouldn’t be completely fruitless for Tim Paine’s men.
But the dominant story of the afternoon was the delightfully insouciant way Sarfraz and Fakhar approached a dire situation. Sarfraz found the gaps as only a man of his wile can, manufacturing strokes off both front and back foot to keep the scoreboard ticking over. He took up various positions in his crease to put Lyon off, and kept coming down the ground to ensure the runs didn’t dry up. For the first hour Pakistan were especially fluent, thanks to their captain, while Fakhar, who had held up his end manfully before lunch, had the awareness to take a backseat in the period Sarfraz was most free-flowing.
The morning session had shown no one really has a clue how a Test in the UAE goes. “Slow burners” seemed to be the conclusion last week. Win the toss, bat first, put up a big score, and dominate.
But Lyon made a mockery of that formula, shredding his way through Pakistan’s middle order and turning conventional wisdom on its head. Just after Pakistan had recovered from the loss of an early wicket and begun to put on a partnership that would reset them on course came a spell any grand old Asian spinmaster would remember in the rocking chair decades on.
Spread across two overs, he took four wickets in six balls as Pakistan tumbled from the relative affluence of 57 for one to the penury of 57 for five within 10 minutes. It didn’t only tear up the narrative of the opening session, it may yet be the defining period of this Test series.
For a man who had averaged almost 85 in the UAE previously, there was no foreshadowing what he was about to produce. The second wicket partnership had accumulated 52 hard-fought runs across the middle of the session, and would have been looking at going in one down and carrying on from there. But Azhar Ali, struggling for form of late, chose unwisely to attack Lyon by charging down the wicket, only to scoop the ball straight into the bowler’s hands.
That opened the floodgates. Haris Sohail couldn’t keep the first ball he faced down and Travis Head at silly point caught sharply. An over later, Lyon struck two more bruising blows to the solar plexus of the batting order, sending Asad Shafiq and Babar Azam on their way. Babar’s dismissal could most kindly be described as a brain-freeze, with the youngster charging down the track off just his second delivery, hopelessly beaten by both flight and turn.
Fakhar had been put down by Labuschagne at short midwicket just before Lyon ran riot. It was a simple catch, really, expected to be taken of a man who had grasped a stunner within the first three overs of the match. It accounted for Mohammad Hafeez, with the ball first thudding into short leg’s groin. Labuschagne managed to keep his wits about him and the ball off the ground, getting Australia off to the perfect start.
Much of Australia’s chirpiness will have dissipated following the afternoon stand, but with the tail now in, Pakistan could yet pay for the morning drowsiness.