Recent pictures of the Pakistan team practising with enthusiasm at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) ahead of their Boxing Day clash with hosts Australia depict an image of a side that exudes confidence and seem to be at ease with each other.
The smiles and energy that shone through the images appeared to indicate a state of happiness with the way the series has progressed so far, and if the press engagements by Grant Flower and Asad Shafiq are to be believed, Pakistan have the momentum which will take them to victory in the upcoming second Test.
But here is where a reality check is important, especially if you are an admirer of Pakistan cricket. The previous Test match, a Day/Night affair in Brisbane, was not a victory for Pakistan. In fact, the team was under the cosh for most parts of the match, with an absolute disaster in the making, when Pakistan slumped to 67/8, ending Day One on a forgettable 97/8. In fact, had it not been for a strange decision by Steve Smith to not enforce the follow-on, the result and the Pakistan outlook for the upcoming game may well have been radically different.
As bizarre as the reaction of some commentators to criticise the Australian captain for his tactics may sound to all, the fact is that Australia have a one-nil advantage in the three Test match series and it is more than talk of momentum that will help the visitors overcome what lies ahead.
For a start, there is weight of history which shows that the MCG has not been a happy hunting ground for Pakistan in the past. Of the nine Test matches played at this venue, Pakistan have won just two, with five losses and two draws. Whilst one could argue that the composition of the current team is different from the past, there is a question of the Pakistan bowlers’ inability to come to terms with local conditions. And if some of the teams comprising of bigger names have struggled at this venue, the present lot will also find it difficult.
The Day/Night format with the pink ball chosen for the Brisbane Test was touted as a tough one for Pakistan’s brittle batting line-up and they may well feel comfortable in the more familiar red ball version. However, the perennial issue of the inability of Pakistani openers to put up decent partnerships for the remainder of the batsmen to cash in on is not limited to the colour of the ball alone.
And if the Pakistani opening batsmen were hoping for better news from the MCG curator, there wasn’t much forthcoming in that regard as he feels that the ball is expected do a bit in the first few overs. Where Pakistan can draw comfort from, however, is the fact that once their openers can see off the new ball, the rest of the batting line-up should find the batting conditions more to their liking. With enough runs on the board, Yasir Shah’s leg-spinning skills could also come into play towards the end of the game to help Pakistan square the series.
With a short three match series, the Australian advantage is an important one. The pressure that it puts on Pakistan is immense and had it not been for the second innings fightback in Brisbane, they would have been struggling to come up with answers to the questions that the Australians posed in the opening encounter.
Apart from the opening pair, the visitors are due some big innings from the ageing stalwarts Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. Whilst Younis did redeem himself in a limited manner in the second innings, to say that he is on the top of his game in the current series would be stretching the truth. And whilst Younis could easily build upon his previous innings at the MCG, the Pakistan captain’s abysmal form in the tour is a matter of grave concern.
Misbah, at the age of forty-two, has earned plaudits from many for his outstanding leadership as well as personal feats, but the simple lack of runs so far will be playing on his mind and putting an immeasurable strain on the already-brittle middle order. Whether this is the demise of his batting skills with his advancing age or just a temporary drop in form is what many would be keen to find out.
If the pink ball format presented too much of a challenge for Misbah’s reflexes, the MCG offers a more conventional and familiar challenge for the Pakistani captain. His admirers would expect him to come out with an innings of defiance and value to reclaim his place as the cornerstone of the batting order.
Apart from the immediate issue of his form, Misbah’s future legacy as a successful captain is also at risk in the MCG Test. What is widely being regarded as his last overseas tour, the stakes are as high as they have ever been for him to go out with a success in a series played in non-Asian conditions.
The Pakistan bowling attack failed to take twenty-wickets in the first Test and a few questions were asked about the choice of Rahat Ali as a member of the three-man fast-bowling attack. All indications are that Pakistan, in the interest of stability, are willing to go ahead with an unchanged bowling line-up.
However, given Rahat’s ineffectiveness in Brisbane, there is a growing clamour for him to be replaced by either Sohail Khan or Imran Khan, and Pakistan Head Coach Mickey Arthur will need to have some robust arguments ready should the result of the MCG Test not go in Pakistan’s favour.
The stark truth is that a loss at MCG could not only hasten the end of Misbah’s career but will also put an end to yet another Pakistan quest for an elusive series victory in Australia. The heat, as they say, is firmly on Misbah and Arthur to motivate the visitors to bring their A game to the MCG, if they are to keep any hopes alive of leaving the Australian shores without another series loss.
Despite Pakistan’s fighting talk and the perceived momentum from the moral victory in Brisbane, Australia will know that they hold the higher ground as they go in to the second Test and only a performance of heroic proportions is likely to change their hold on this series.
Updated Date: Dec 25, 2016 11:47:27 IST