Australia eye bigger fish after feasting on the entree that was Pakistan
Ease into some ruby slippers, tap your heels together three times, and repeat after me: you can only beat what’s in front of you, you can only beat what’s in front of you, you can only beat what’s in front of you. Good, now we can begin.
Pakistan are not a very good Test cricket side; they’re ranked eight in the format by the ICC. Pakistan are especially unsuited to Australian conditions; they’ve now lost 14 Tests in a row in this neck of the woods since winning in Sydney in 1995. Pakistan don’t have many standout individuals; they have just one batsman and two bowlers ranked in the top 20 by the ICC for their disciplines. Australia were always going to win this two-Test series, conclusions don’t get much more foregone.
This meant eight days of cricket containing little jeopardy, the most important component in drama. Consequently it was a series that carried the air of an exhibition, or perhaps more accurately, a preseason friendly, tuning up the home side for tougher tasks to come from across the Tasman.
In that context Australia ticked plenty of boxes. David Warner respawned following his Ashes horribilis and ended any speculation his career was in terminal decline post-suspension. Marnus Labuschagne proved his summer in England and Wales was more substantial than a holiday fling. Steve Smith proved he is, after all, human, and his teammates responded by demonstrating they can win a Test series off their own backs, instead of being carried on his.
It was joyful to see Mitchell Starc bowling with a clear mind and gamboling to the popping crease like a juvenile T-Rex relishing the thrill of a hunt. An energised Starc under lights with a new pink ball is probably now the most adrenaline-fuelled sight in cricket.
At a much more sedate pace there was plenty to enjoy in Nathan Lyon spinning his side to victory on the fourth day in Adelaide. If nothing else it makes it easier to provide a counterpoint to the bores who still fret that a man with 370 Test wickets never does it for Australia when he’s supposed to.
Mistakes are better avoided at all times in Test cricket but in a series such as this they should be welcomed to a degree. New Zealand will not be so forgiving of the butterfingers and general malaise Australia displayed in the field on days three and four at Adelaide Oval, and as their recent series against England has proven, the Black Caps have batsmen who will punish opponents who allow them to bed in.
Tim Paine has proven an astute captain during his time in charge but there were long passages in the second Test where he didn’t appear to be a man with a plan. If the remaining pitches of the summer are as a lifeless as Adelaide’s, and the Kookaburra ball proves as reluctant to move laterally, much greater cunning will be required to apply wicket-taking pressure on the likes of Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor.
For Test cricket’s sake we must hope the occasional glimmer of quality shown by Pakistan blossoms in the coming years. Babar Azam has a rare grace at the crease, if not yet the Test record to back it up, while few sides can boast the extravagant promise of teenage tearaways Naseem Shah and Shaheen Shah Afridi. For now, they are the cricket equivalent of diamond-studded rims on a Hyundai Excel: they might catch the eye but they’re not going anywhere fast.
The 11 Australians who did the business against Pakistan will now get the chance to enhance their CVs against the Kiwis. The only selection tweak between the start and end of the Test summer seems likely to be the rotation of James Pattinson into the fast bowling cartel at some point.
“It’s nice to have a couple of very, very good wins” remarked selection chairman Trevor Hohns with a straight bat when announcing his squad for Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. “The performance of the team against Pakistan was very impressive across all areas, while there is always some room to improve.” The diplomat’s way of saying you can only beat what’s in front of you.