For many years, Gabba, Brisbane has hosted the first-ever Test of the Australian summer. While the summer this time kicked-off with T20 Internationals (T20I), the venue will however host the first 5-day game of the season, with Australia taking on Pakistan in the first of the two-match series.
This will be Pakistan’s first ever game in the World Test Championship (WTC) and they have the opportunity to leapfrog Australia, who have 56 points from five Tests, following a closely fought 2-2 series draw against England. In The Ashes, Australia were hugely boosted by the return of Steve Smith, who hit centuries for fun, while David Warner could not even manage 100 runs in the entire series. However, there is no denying that he will be a force to be reckoned with on home soil and that’s why despite an average of just 9.5 in 10 innings, Warner is in the squad for this series.
This is relatively new-look Pakistan under a new leader in Azhar Ali. While the core of the batting remains the same, Pakistan have a couple of new bowlers looking to make a mark. Muhammad Musa and Naseem Shah impressed everyone with their raw pace and managed to trouble the Cricket Australia XI batsmen with their pace and bounce. There might not be a better venue than Gabba to make their debuts considering that it is one of the fastest pitches in the world. The new leadership group has already taken a huge leap by including a few raw talents in the side and will hope that it pays off, at least in the long run.
Pakistan took a drubbing in the T20I series, which was their first under Misbah-ul-Haq, who has appointed the head coach and also the chief selector. It was a decision which was applauded initially, but soon enough, there were some cracks exposed following the comprehensive loss.
While Australia start favourites, Pakistan are more than capable of competing and keeping the hosts on their toes. However, if history is anything to go by, Pakistan have not won a Test in Australia for 24 years. Their last 12 Tests in Australia have all ended in losses, including the narrow 39-run loss they suffered the last time they played at this venue, when Asad Shafiq’s magnanimous 137 almost helped Pakistan chase down 490.
The Gabba is known to be an intimidating venue especially for the visiting team as the pace and bounce of the wicket can take them by surprise – something that the pitches in the subcontinent don’t prepare you for. For Pakistan to go toe-to-toe with Australia could be tough and they could more often than not behind the nine-ball, but they could spring in a surprise with their batting with the likes of Babar Azam, Shafiq and Azhar Ali, being consistent over the years and with the ball, they have the consistent Mohammad Abbas and also Imran Khan, who had decent workout in the warm-up games. But are they any match for the talent Australia possess with both bat and ball? Only time will tell.
Spin has very little role to play at the Gabba, with the pacers having picked up 93 wickets in Tests here since 2015, giving spin just 26 scalps. While right-arm pacers have picked up the most wickets (54) since 2015, the left-arm quicks too have done a great job picking up a wicket every 53 deliveries, which will bring Mitchell Starc into play.
James Pattinson has copped a match ban for breaching Cricket Australia’s code of conduct during a Sheffield Shield match and as a result, we will see Starc partner Josh Hazlewood, at least in this Test. Pattinson was preferred ahead of Starc for a couple of games in The Ashes and it looked to be a similar case for this game as well, but Starc will be in the playing XI ahead of Michael Nesar.
Head coach Justin Langer has confirmed that Joe Burns will partner Warner at the top. With Cameron Bancroft also in the squad, there was uncertainty as to who will open the innings with Warner, but Burns who averages 40.40 from three matches ahead of Bancroft’s 11.40 from three matches, gets the nod, at least for this game.
With no Usman Khawaja or Shaun Marsh, it is safe to assume that Marnus Labuschagne will occupy the No, 3 slot, with Smith coming in at 4. Matthew Wade and Travis Head will complete the middle-order.
Likely XI: David Warner, Joe Burns, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Matthew Wade, Travis Head, Tim Paine (c & wk), Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood
If you are part of the Pakistan think-tank, it would be naïve not to come up with a plan for Smith. Since his return, he has looked more assured and hungrier to score big, which was evident in The Ashes. Misbah said that his bowlers will look to pitch the ball up to Smith – an area he believes is a blind spot for top batsmen.
“As far as Steve Smith goes, there’s a blind spot for every top batsman in the world; as a bowler you’re always interested in pitching the ball there,” Misbah said, according to ESPNcricinfo.
“All the batsmen you talk to, any batsman in the world, that’s the area where you have to defend a ball, and that is a six-to-eight-metre spot where you have to play the top of off stump. That’s the area from where if it’s happening then that creates a great chance,” he added.
Planning would mean nothing if his bowlers do not execute them and in planning for just one batsman, one must not overlook the other quality batsmen in the team, like Warner, Head, who average around 60 at home or Labuschagne and Wade, who had an excellent outing in The Ashes.
With Sarfaraz Ahmed dropped, it paves way for Mohammad Rizwan, who averages 45.67 with the bat in the last four seasons to keep wickets. There will be a toss-up for the No. 6 spot between Haris Sohail and Iftikhar Ahmed. Sohail has been given a push in the limited-overs side and will not be surprising to see him getting a chance to seal the No. 6 slot as well.
As far as the fast bowlers are concerned, the youngest of the three teenagers Naseem Shah will make his Test debut at Brisbane, captain Azhar Ali announced. Mohammad Abbas and Imran Khan will most likely be the other two pacers and Shaheen Afridi might miss out as a result.
Likely XI: Imam ul Haq, Shan Masood, Azhar Ali (c), Babar Azam, Asad Shafiq, Haris Sohail, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Khan, Imran Khan