‘Just about survival’: Why perfect pair are under pressure

Despite the Melbourne weather intervening as it often can on Boxing Day, fans glued to their couches across the globe were still treated to 66 overs of hard-nosed cricket between Australia and Pakistan.

With Pakistan desperate to find their way back into the three-match series after a 360-run drubbing in Perth, the tourists won the toss and elected to bowl first in overcast conditions. 

Day one came to an even close, with Australia 3-187 against a Pakistan attack that toiled hard.

RECAP: Follow the action from Australia vs Pakistan MCG Test

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Here are the five things we’ve learned from the jam-packed day of test cricket. 

B1 and B2 are due

In what has been such a rarity these last few years, Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith have incredibly found themselves now in need of more red-ball runs than their teammates. 

The coming of age from Mitch Marsh and long-time consistency from Usman Khawaja have perhaps put the duo in an ever so slightly different light this year in a time that has provided two tough tours of India and England between Australian summers.

Labuschagne – who sits 44 not out off 120 balls at stumps – has passed fifty just twice in 14 innings; his vital 51 and 111 in Manchester to retain the urn for Australia the only two instances.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan provided his own insight into the intent of the top-order batter on Fox Sports.

“At the minute I get a sense with Marnus that he’s just about survival … when you enjoy batting the most is when you’re out there scoring runs,” he said.

An average of 37.14 this year is undoubtedly less than Labuschagne desires, although a shot at a Boxing Day hundred would finish his year on a high exclusively shared by greats such as Matthew Hayden (6), David Warner (3) and the late Andrew Symonds. 

Smith, who is no stranger to a Boxing Day hundred himself with four of his own, departed for just 26 after Pakistan successfully reviewed a caught behind appeal in the later stages of Day 1.  

Smith has been more consistent than his partner in crime across the same timeline, although still below his best cricket that we have become so accustomed to seeing.

His two hundreds and two half-centuries in his 15 most recent innings in 2023 produce an average of 41.85 this year; approximately 17 runs fewer than his career average. 

Commonly referred to as the two most cricket-obsessed players in the Australian line-up, both Labuschagne and Smith will be no doubt hungrier than ever to convert large heading into 2024. 

Yet another ‘what if’ day in the field for Pakistan

In a headline that has been written far too many times already this series for the tourist’s liking, Pakistan’s fielding has yet again come under fire.

Their woes carried over from Perth in just the third over of the day, as Abdullah Shafique once again dropped a simple catch off the bat of an Australian opener to give David Warner a life on just 2. 

In trying conditions early on, the chance to bring Labuschagne to the crease in the fourth over was one captain Shah Masood would have dreamt of on Christmas Day – a dream that came undone in a matter of milliseconds by Shafique when the golden chance fell onto his wrists and into the ground.

“That is the worst possible start for Pakistan, you can’t be giving these sorts of chances to this batting line-up,” exclaimed Adam Gilchrist on Fox Sports.

From there on in, Pakistan’s ground fielding was below par.

Several messy slides and pick-ups when chasing balls in the outfield allowed Australia to sneak back for an extra run, ever so slightly easing the scoring pressure on a day where runs did not come easy.

Two very tough chances were put down also late in the days play, with Smith dropped by an outstretched Babar Azam at catching cover before a Travis Head slash in the last over of the day split the left hand of captain Shan Masood at second slip.

Brutal perhaps, but the inability to take easy chances early has left Pakistan ruing much tougher opportunities late to try and even out their decision to bowl first on a traditionally flat Melbourne pitch. 

Is Khawaja suffering from run-scoring fatigue?

With 1,210 runs and a mammoth 2,790 balls faced next to his name in 2023, Usman Khawaja has been the standout Test batter worldwide this calendar year. 

The left-handed opener once against applied his characteristic patience during the first session to grind his way to 36 not out at lunch – in the process outlasting partner David Warner who fell on the stroke of the break. 

However, a careless guide of sorts to second slip brought his undoing on 42, creating an abnormal trend of dismissals for the 37-year-old this summer.

Khawaja’s scores of 41 and 90 in Perth before Christmas showed temperament in trying conditions, before losing his wicket both times to what seemed to be either a sudden lapse in concentration or awareness. 

His 41 in the first innings came to a close after he knicked a Shaheen Afridi half-volley through to the wicketkeeper, while his race to 100 in the second innings ended courtesy of a slash to third man; albeit in pursuit for quick runs. 

While only a small sample size from his three knocks this series, Khawaja could be understandably forgiven for associating fatigue with his last three methods of dismissal. 

Nonetheless, he will still be disappointed in his inability to convert one of his two starts and a 90 into his 16th Test century.

Pakistan’s left-arm partnership one to invest in

The upmost faith was instilled in Pakistan’s newly-found new ball partnership this morning by captain Shan Masood, electing to bowl first on an MCG pitch that has been notorious for lacking life in recent years.  

Not to be underestimated, Shaheen Afridi and Mir Hamza made life difficult for Warner and Khawaja during the first 45 minutes of play with their swing and seam.

Cricketing great Michael Hussey – who was recently inducted into Australia’s Cricket Hall of Fame – noted how the pair had been there or thereabouts in the morning session.

“They have bowled a few good balls … they’ve got to stay there for long periods of time,” said Hussey.

Afridi was especially unlucky early on, finding the edge of Warner at the end of the third over only for Abdullah Shafique to put down one of the easier slip catches in recent memory. 

While his figures of 0-63 don’t make for enthralling reading, the leader of the Pakistan attack can hold his head high after bowling a whopping 30.3% (20 overs) of the tourists’ overs in a rain-affected day of cricket.

Hamza complemented his spearhead teammate well at the other end, and tested Khawaja in particular with multiple jagging in-swingers that varied from his consistent out-swing.

In just his fourth Test, the 31-year-old was brought back at intervals throughout the day and continued to find swing both ways with a ball that was kept in immaculate condition by his teammates. 

Walking off the field with figures of 0-27 from 15 overs, Hamza will be looking to push for some much-deserved reward on Day 2. 

Fair play, Melburnians 

Despite torrential rain on Christmas Day and the forecast rain interruptions on Boxing Day, the Melbourne cricketing faithful still turned up in reasonable numbers to watch the iconic public holiday clash. 

62,167 fanatics strolled through the MCG turnstiles to catch a glimpse of David Warner’s last Boxing Day and penultimate Test match – 3,042 more than the entire attendance seen at Optus Stadium during the first Test in Perth. 

While the difference in availability for fans to view the respective matches in December is understandable, the figures still show an interesting contrast between the preference of format for each state.

Perth, home to the majorly successful BBL franchise the Perth Scorchers, is increasingly seen as a city who turn out in greater force for shorter format cricket – a stark contrast to Melbourne who each year push far greater numbers towards the Boxing Day Test.

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