Even at full strength, Australian batting in recent years has shown palpable signs of weakness when the ball either swings or spins.
Pakistan attacked a severely weakened Australian line-up utilising both forms of kryptonite, unveiling swing with the old ball and finger spin to dismantle their first innings. Against this twin assault, Tim Paine’s tyros were powerless to halt Pakistan’s progress but at least in the second innings they displayed thoughtfulness and determination along with resolute defence to clinch a draw.
The leader of their resistance was the previously leaden-footed Usman Khawaja. The elegant left-hander displayed the benefit of a well-planned re-think of his approach to facing spin bowling and an elevation to the top of the order. The most productive batting of the Test came against the new ball where the opening partnerships prospered.
In fact, there was a period in Australia’s first innings where they could have answered with a rejoinder “what weakness against spin?” as they cruised to 142 without loss. However, at that point the Australian batting suffered another all-too-familiar collapse, losing 10 wickets for 60 runs.
This collapse was precipitated by the off-spin of debutant Bilal Asif, a taller version of the Muttiah Muralitharan form of finger-spin, involving a lot of wristwork. Asif’s deceptive flight and bounce bamboozled the Australian left-handers and opened the door for the highly efficient medium-pacer Mohammad Abbas to barnstorm the lower order with relentlessly accurate swing bowling.
This effective combination set Pakistan — who are as at home in the desert as Lawrence of Arabia — on the path to what should have been yet another ‘home turf’ victory.
Nevertheless, the inexperienced Australians shouldn’t feel too downcast because far better Baggy Green line-ups have been destroyed by off-spin, albeit by tweakers with a much more illustrious CV. In my memory, this malaise started with England’s Jim Laker in 1956 and gathered pace at the beginning of the new century with Harbhajan Singh and then Ravi Ashwin, along with occasional misfires against Muralitharan (in Sri Lanka), Pakistan’s Saqlain Mushtaq and Graeme Swann of England.
In the controversy laden 1956 season, Laker plundered a strong Australian line-up that included the 1948 Invincible team members, Neil Harvey and Keith Miller, to the tune of 46 wickets at an average of nine. That included 19 wickets (9 and 10) on a specifically prepared Old Trafford dust bowl.
When I played my one game for Lancashire at Old Trafford in 1963, I asked the humorous and refreshingly honest groundsman Bert Flack about that pitch; “Oooh ‘twere a bluddy bad un,” he replied with a chuckle. “Them’s at ‘eadquarters (Lord’s I assumed) told me t’ prepare a bleedin’ turner,” he continued with a grin, “and a bleedin’ turner ’t were.”
Not surprisingly, modern Australian teams are often greeted with “bleedin’ turner’s” but minus the humorous admission from local authorities. The pitch in Dubai however could only be classified as a mild turner; it was far from a spitting cobra and appeared to hibernate on the last day.
The Australians produced a more studious approach in their second innings and following the example set by Khawaja, they unravelled the mystery of Asif and fought out a confidence inducing draw.
Khawaja was a man on a mission as he set out to prove that his previously poor record in these type of conditions was a thing of the past. With a more aggressive approach that resulted in sharper footwork and profiting from an improved fitness regime, he displayed skill, determination and extraordinary stamina in demanding conditions.
Following the suspension of the two most proficient batsmen in Steve Smith and David Warner, Australia badly needed Khawaja to display progress. He took a giant leap to help fill the void and deny a conservative Pakistan what seemed to be a certain victory after another calamitous first innings collapse.
(The author is a former Australian Test captain. Views are personal)