Marsh rescues Aussies – but misses out on ton – as Pakistan take fight to hosts despite horror drop
Mitchell Marsh fell agonisingly short of his fourth Test century on Day 3 at the MCG, but the all-rounder’s breathtaking counterattack still rescued Australia from a sticky situation to leave Pakistan ruing a costly mistake.
Marsh was on 20 and Australia 4/46, having slumped to 4/16 to some inspired new ball bowling from Shaheen Shah Afridi and Mir Hamza, when the Western Australian gave a regulation edge off Aamer Jamal to Abdullah Shafique at first slip.
But the Pakistan opener, having spilled a sitter in the same spot to spare David Warner on Day 1, would repeat the mistake, coughing up the golden chance to give Marsh a life, while second slip Agha Salman’s feeble attempt to cling to the ricochet earned him at least a part share of the blame.
Had the catch been taken, Australia would have been five down, with an out-of-form wicketkeeper in Alex Carey and the tail to come, and only 100 runs ahead.
But from there, the wind would go right out of Pakistan’s sails, the tourists visibly deflating after the howler with a number of fielding errors as Marsh and Steve Smith’s partnership swelled to 153 to take Australia into far more comfortable waters.
As if to rub salt into the wound, both the pair would survive marginal LBW shouts just for good measure, Pakistan twice reviewing only for ball-tracker to project ‘umpire’s call’ on hitting the stumps – Marsh in particular lucky to be reprieved by Joel Wilson after shouldering arms to Hassan Ali.
The 32-year old, whose sparkling innings including 13 boundaries as he feasted on repeat short and wide offerings from Pakistan’s pace attack into his hitting zone through the covers, looked destined for a century, his first in Tests on home soil in nearly six years, when he cruised to 96.
But, ironically given his earlier reprieve, he would be denied a century by a spectacular slips catch, Hamza finding his outside edge off an attempted drive and allowing Salman to take a one-handed screamer diving to his right.
A warm ovation from a 40,000-strong MCG crowd, despite dad Geoff’s horrified reaction from the stands, was nevertheless a fitting reward for Marsh’s latest rescue act, having also stepped in to save the day on his Test recall at Headingley during this year’s Ashes; while also seeing his popularity grow even further.
Marsh’s dismissal, as well as Afridi returning to bounce out Smith for 50 on the stroke of stumps to leave Australia 6/187 at the close, mean Pakistan go into Day 4 still well and truly in the contest.
But with the pitch offering plenty to the bowlers and unlikely to improve for the rest of the Test, the hosts’ lead of 241 may be enough already.
The afternoon’s drama overshadowed a morning dominated by Pat Cummins, who claimed two Pakistan wickets to secure a third five-wicket haul at the MCG despite plenty of resistance from the tourists’ tail.
Resuming on 6/194 and trailing by 124, Pakistan’s hopes of taking a chunk out of the deficit were dealt a blow when Mohammad Rizwan fell into the captain’s trap on 42.
Mere moments after moving David Warner from slip into a catching cover, Rizwan couldn’t resist a wider offering from Cummins, punching a catch straight to the veteran to leave the visitors seven down.
“He [Rizwan] was batting pretty well, we thought ‘oh, he’s not leaving many’, so let’s chuck another guy out there,” Cummins said to Fox Cricket of the masterstroke.
“Just fluky – it never happens like that!”
A fighting unbeaten 33 from Aamer Jamal, who shrugged off a number of body blows from the Australian quicks to produce a stoic resistance with his fellow tailenders, halved the damage for Pakistan, the last three wickets adding 49 handy runs to take the score to 264.
Cummins still snared his tenth five-wicket haul in Tests by castling Hassan, and when Hamza was stumped by Alex Carey for Lyon’s fourth, a lead of 54 seemed to have Australia in the box seat.
But with two overs to bowl before lunch, Pakistan attack leader Afridi, disappointing thus far in the series, burst to life in spectacular fashion.
The left-armer took only two balls to strike, a perfect outswinger drawing the edge of Usman Khawaja through to Rizwan for a rare duck; when Marnus Labuschagne’s mediocre 2023 with the bat came to a close with a strangle down the leg side, Afridi had two and Australia were in trouble at 2/6 at lunch.
While the second session was delayed in bizarre scenes, with third umpire Richard Illingworth getting stuck in a lift and requiring a brief stint in the hot seat from fourth umpire Phillip Gillespie; but when play at last resumed, the visitors picked up right where they’d left off.
Warner’s final Test innings at the MCG ended ignominiously, bottom-edging a pull onto his stumps off Hamza for 6; the bowler’s follow-up, comprehensively bowling Travis Head for a first-ball duck to leave the score 4/16, was even better.
Marsh survived the hat-trick ball, but with the Kookaburra doing plenty in the air and off the wicket, neither he nor Smith looked comfortable at the crease early.
The introduction of Jamal after Hamza’s scintillating spell brought with it respite, Marsh clubbing three short and wide offerings to the point boundary within the right-armer’s first four balls; in his very next over, though, the Pakistani should have had the ultimate revenge.
But from the moment Shafique’s dropped chance hit the grass, the winds would change – a poor misfield at mid-off from captain Shan Masood to gift Marsh another four spoke of a team thinking it had botched its best opportunity at a rare Test win in Australia.
“The wheels are off for Pakistan all of a sudden,” said Isa Guha on Fox Cricket.
The sloppiness would spread and the errors mounted as Smith and Marsh retook control, the former content to anchor the innings as the Western Australian took the fight back to the visitors.
50 would arrive off 70 balls as Marsh reached tea with his most emphatic shot yet, a vicious pull for four off an Afridi bouncer to put the pressure back on Australia’s early afternoon nemesis.
Crunching anything wide in front of point and driving fuller-length balls fluently, Marsh seemed a certainty to reach three figures; but on 96, he’d finally be caught at slip, 76 runs after giving his first opportunity.
There would be one last act of drama to end a compelling day; needing to survive one last Afridi over to make it to stumps, Smith, who had earlier reached his slowest Test half-century in Australia off 152 balls, fell victim to the left-armer’s latest magic trick.
A perfectly directed short ball zeroed in on the veteran’s gloves, Smith’s attempt to evade only steering the ball to Salman in the gully for the simplest of catches, to give Pakistan renewed hope going into the last two days of the match.
For the tourists, the equation is simple: finish off the Australian tail for as few runs as possible, and any chase of under 300 will be, if not likely, eminently possible for a stunning comeback triumph.
As for Australia, Day 4 presents a golden chance for Carey, unbeaten on 16 at the close, to bed down his place in the team after a poor run of form since the Ashes.
It could have been even better for the tourists on a compelling day of cricket, but the MCG looks set to provide something not seen on these shores for at least three years: a thrilling Test match finish.