Boxing Day gifts: Australia let off the hook at MCG as Pakistan let bowling-friendly conditions slip through their fingers
Pakistan paid the price for dropping yet another simple catch and not attacking the stumps as Australia negotiated their way through a tricky opening day to the Second Test at the MCG.
The Boxing Day start was full of Christmas presents from Pakistan – they gave David Warner and Steve Smith a second chance with dropped catches while their swing bowlers failed to target the wickets and although the Aussies played and missed at many deliveries, they finished on top.
Rain cut out a session of play in the middle of the day but Australia were able to navigate their way to stumps at 3-187 from 66 overs with Marnus Labuschagne (44) and Travis Head (nine) well placed to cash in on Wednesday when much more favourable batting conditions are likely.
Shan Masood won the toss and elected to bowl with Pat Cummins saying he would have done the same thing if the coin fell his way.
But as they did at the First Test in Perth, the tourists wasted early opportunities to get on top with Warner dropped at first slip by Abudullah Shafique, who shelled an absolute sitter.
Former Pakistani skipper Waqar Younis was furious, blasting the pathetic effort in Seven commentary.
“That is as easy as it gets,” Waqar fumed. “If you are not going to catch these, you are going to be in trouble. Watch that. Almost missing the hands.”
Justin Langer was equally unimpressed.
“That’s as easy a catch that you’ll ever see in Test cricket,” his co-commentator added.
“I said it before this Test – if Pakistan have got any chance of fighting back in this series, they must field better than they did. That’s an impossible catch to drop. While he’ll feel sick about it, it’s not acceptable at international level.”
Warner rode his luck after the chance, edging another drive over slips and nearly getting out in strange circumstances when he tried to back away before a delivery because a bird had flown across the pitch.
He then stuck his bat out and hit the ball – if he had spooned it to a fielder he would have been out but he looked bemused as he flapped his arms like a bird to the umpire to indicate why he had pulled away at the last moment.
His eventful innings ended in the final over before lunch when he wafted at a seemingly harmless off break from Agha Salman to depart for 38.
When you send a team into bat on a seam-friendly wicket in swinging conditions to have the opposition at 1-90 after the first session is nowhere near good enough.
Usman Khawaja did all the hard work to get through the morning session but he went soon after the lunch break when he also presented the slips cordon with an unnecessary offering on 42.
The left-hander guided the ball like he was offering up pre-game catching practice, which Pakistan definitely needed, and gifted Hasan Ali a well-deserved wicket after he and Shaheen Shah Afridi dominated early in the second session.
They had Marnus Labuschagne and Steve Smith reaching for the swinging ball but bowled without luck as the Australian pair survived a testing period with the skies darkening.
When the rain started falling with the home side 2-114 in the 43rd over, it stalled the momentum Pakistan were building as they tried to claw back momentum to justify their decision to bowl first.
Warner told Fox Cricket during the rain delay that it was challenging in the first session.
“When they put the ball in the right areas and challenged our front foot defence, a lot of play and misses, a chance which is always handy. It was quite tough,” he said.
“We spoke with each other about trying to get on with it. It was doing a little bit too much. Uzzy was playing a bit more conservatively like he always does and for me, I was saying if it was in my zone I’m going to try and go for it.
“They didn’t give us too much freebies. In Perth I think they did a little bit.”
As for his dismissal, he added: “I just had a laugh with Uzzy on the way off. Before lunch, generally you’re not playing at most of those. It was too full for me to play and I got a bit lazy and just threw my hands at it. I didn’t expect it to spin and bounce as much as it did.”
Despite the inclement weather, a bumper crowd of 62,167 waited through the lengthy delay or more than 3.5 hours and when play resumed later in the afternoon under lights, Smith was dropped on 16 when Babar Azam spilt a sharp one-handed diving chance at cover.
It’s tough to be too harsh as it would have been a pearler if Babar had held on but it added to the touring team’s torment.
Smith was given out LBW on 19 to Shaheen but the replay showed it was tracking just over the bails, a welcome relief for the 34-year-old after the DRS went against him in a similar scenario in Perth.
But his luck ran out on 26 when he Aamir Jamal claimed a nick but after the appeal was turned down, the video review highlighted the faintest of marks on hotspot and snicko to reduce Australia to 3-154.
Apart from a Shaheen beamer which cannoned into Head’s shoulder, they didn’t face too many anxious moments in the final half-hour before stumps.
Labuschagne again looked scratchy as he looks to finish the calendar year with what would be just his second ton for 2023 but too often during his 120-ball stay, he was allowed to let balls go because the bowlers sprayed the ball wide or targeted a line well outside off stump.
With the rain expected to clear on Wednesday, the stage is set for Australia to mount a sizeable first-innings total to bat Pakistan out of the game.
This was Pakistan’s chance to seize the initiative but they worked hard rather than smart in the field and unless they get into the tail quickly on day two, this Test is likely to follow a similar script to the series opener when Australia’s relentless pressure eventually overwhelmed their outclassed opponents.