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Unlucky Shaheen spearheads Pakistan’s missed opportunity at MCG

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Last updated on 26 Dec 2023 | 09:42 AM
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Unlucky Shaheen spearheads Pakistan’s missed opportunity at MCG

Having gone 0-1 down in the series, the conditions in Melbourne was ideal for the visitors

“We will bowl first,” Pakistan skipper Shan Masood did not even blink an eye, choosing to bowl first in the second Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) on Tuesday (December 26). 

The conditions couldn’t have been better tailor-made for Pakistan’s pace-heavy bowling unit, who, for the second Test in a row, opted against playing a specialist spinner. Shaheen Afridi’s intentions were pretty clear: try to get the ball to move away from the left-handed David Warner magically. 

Mir Hamza, who returned to the Test XI for the first time since January 2023, also put utmost pressure on the Australian batter in the first session of play. Unfortunately, Abdullah Shafique was on the wrong side when he dropped a sitter, allowing the opening partnership to flourish, which eventually helped Australia to score 187/3.  

What else happened? 

Shaheen Afridi’s threatening spell(s)

With conditions favouring the pacers, Shaheen began with some yards behind his tail as he sprinted to the bowling crease. While Shaheen started the day with a rather loose delivery on Warner’s legs, he grew increasingly confident as the day progressed. In just his second over, the left-arm pacer bowled a peach, nearly drawing an edge from the left-handed Warner. 

Note: The one delivery widest on the leg-side is due to broadcast error

A delivery later, he drew the edge, with a straightforward chance for Shafique, who made a complete meal out of it. It was as good a Test match bowling from Shaheen, whose grouping was closely knit during his first spell, drawing a huge 30% false shot from the two in-form Australian batters - Warner and Usman Khawaja. 

Nearly 94% of the balls he bowled were on a length or a back-of-a-length area, making it extremely tough for the Australian batters to manoeuvre. That wasn’t it, Shaheen’s third spell too, was one from the top draw, where he only conceded ten runs in seven overs. 

His modus operandi continued to be the same, bowling nearly 86% of his deliveries in the same length as his first spell. But what changed was how he changed his lines immaculately to the right-handed Labuschagne with Khawaja at the other end. It was unfortunate for Shaheen to go wicketless across the two spells. 

Pakistan’s plan against Marnus Labuschagne

Outside off-stump - 17.4

That’s how much Marnus Labuschagne averages against balls outside the off-stump this year: 17.4. For one of the best batters in the last few years, having a vulnerability outside off-stump is almost like a death knell. 

It was an obvious area for the Pakistan pacers to attack the right-hander, with ten of his dismissals coming in that area. But what Labuschagne did was blunt that plan and instead put on a masterclass with the bat - showing the other batters how to leave deliveries on a pitch where there was something on the offer for the bowlers. 

Pakistan pacers bowled 65.5% of their deliveries in that exact channel, but Labuschagne thwarted it and ensured that he saw through the tough part of the fixture on day one with ease. With 44 runs on board already, Labuschagne will want to convert that into a three-figure score, his second of the year. 

Poor run continues for Steve Smith

Steve Smith has scored 879 runs this year, with three centuries, averaging 41.85, yet if you look at it microscopically, it has been a poor year for the right-hander, who has failed to convert starts into substantial scores. Smith started the year off on the best possible note, with a century in Sydney against South Africa. 

Since then, he has scored two crucial centuries - one against India in the World Test Championship (WTC) final and the other against England at Lord’s in the Ashes. However, a whopping 76% of his dismissals have been for less than 50 runs, where he also has a false shot percentage of 11.6. 

Smith has been dismissed 13 times in his first 80 deliveries, including one in Tuesday's second Test at the MCG. In 2023, the Australian vice-captain has only gotten out four times for a single-digit score - 0, 9, 6 and 2. Besides, Smith has been dismissed 13 times from scores 10-50, showing his vulnerability despite acclimating to the conditions. 

You could see a visible grunt on Smith’s face when he walked off after getting another start - 26 off 75 - before edging one off Aamer Jamal’s bowling. Across his last five innings in a Boxing Day clash, Smith averages just 27, falling from the 113.5 that he used to average till 2019. 

Could Pakistan pacers have been a little fuller?

One of the biggest talking points - over and over again - was whether Pakistan pacers weren’t pitching it up fuller enough. At one point on day one, former Pakistan pacer and an all-time great Wasim Akram was puzzled by the bowlers’ decision not to pitch it up further. 

Was it true? 

Pakistan bowled 13% of their deliveries on day one; it wasn’t a case of them not bowling fuller deliveries, but a case of inconsistency. Only 42 deliveries were bowled in the range of hitting the stumps, and only four deliveries were at a pace of above 140 kmph, making it very easy for the Australian batters to leave. 

The grouping from the Pakistani pacers shows how they were all over the place on day one, and that’s the biggest reason why the Australian batters did not have much to worry about their stumps. They posed a lot more trouble to the Australians whenever they targeted the stumps.

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