ABU DHABI: It was the day all days this series were supposed to be like. With a Pakistan team that has historically been near-invincible in the UAE against an Australian Test unit that was near-unrecognisable, the hosts, at last, dominated in every single facet. Their fast bowlers outbowled Australia’s, their spin bowlers were a class apart, and the batting was in a different league to the visitors’ calamitous effort that they offered this morning. The upshot was Pakistan lead by 281 runs with eight wickets still in hand. With three days remaining in this Test, any fourth-innings batting heroics this time, however Herculean they may be, are unlikely to prevent an Australian defeat.
Australia’s only chance of victory lay in turning over Pakistan cheaply, but those hopes were dashed courtesy another deft innings from debutant Fakhar Zaman. This one was more to type, the opener clever enough to understand he would be able to cut loose in the way that’s become his strength, quick runs being the best way to put the game out of Australia’s reach. He put on 66 of them, and looked on track to reach the debut hundred he was so agonisingly denied yesterday. But a stunning catch from Nathan Lyon off his own bowling dashed Fakhar’s hopes. Lyon looked to be taking evasive action after Fakhar struck the ball hard, but the cherry lodged itself in his hands, and Australia could celebrate a fleeting moment of joy.
Even Azhar Ali, who had struggled for runs over the past 18 months, found form today, finishing unbeaten on 54 when the day drew to a close. He looked more confident than he has in months, looking more certain when he used his feet. He was also willing to be patient when the bowling grew tight, refusing to yield in the manner he had in two of his three previous innings this series. While Lyon remained – by a distance – Australia’s best bowler, it wasn’t compliments but numbers in the wickets column that Australia needed to feel more hopeful at the end of the second day.
For the second time in as many Tests, Pakistan punched big holes in Australia’s middle order, establishing firm control right from the outset. It was Mohammad Abbas, the flavour of this season, who continued to endear himself to Pakistan’s fans. He teased and tested Australia’s batsmen in a game of patience, as Shaun Marsh and Travis Head were his third and fourth victims this morning, adding to the two scalps he had from last evening. The pair fell in almost identical fashion: Abbas pitching on a line just outside off stump and nipping away ever-so-slightly, the outside edges almost drawn to the ball as if they were in its magnetic field.
Sarfraz Ahmed, keen to take advantage of the new ball while the pitch was cooperative, kept Abbas in for a lengthy seven-over spell, and Pakistan seem to have unearthed a gem who looks dangerous whatever the conditions or situation. He can bowl in England, West Indies or the UAE without so much as noticing where he is. Right-handers, left-handers, new ball, old ball. He is a trump card Pakistan may continue to play for years to come.
Mitchell Marsh looked solid for the time he was at the crease, and with Aaron Finch, who had managed to survive all morning, Australia needed a partnership of the sort Sarfraz and Fakhar had put on on Tuesday. But within the last half hour before lunch, the session’s pendulum swung decisively in Pakistan’s favour as the spinners made their presence felt. First it was Yasir who took Marsh’s edge, another catch for the reliable Asad Shafiq at first slip. Bilal Asif then struck the hammer blow when he removed the opener Finch for 39, with short leg diving to take a smart catch after the ball had skimmed the inside edge. And there was still time for Asif to remove the Australia captain Tim Paine in the last over before lunch, trapping him on the crease as the ball spun sharply into his pads.
Pakistan didn’t need any help, but they were assisted by a moment of madness from Marnus Labuschagne which ended Australia’s biggest partnership – 37 runs. After Starc drove Yasir tamely back to the bowler, Yasir got a touch onto the ball as it headed towards the stumps. Labuschagne had his bat in the air as he watched the ball hit the stumps, but inexplicably failed to ground his bat. Soon after, Asif broke through Lyon’s defences, before Abbas completed a five-wicket haul – and his career-best innings figures – to wrap up Australia’s innings.
With none of the batting concerns Australia had before this series coming close to being resolved, it appears hard to see a way out of this hole for Paine’s men. Pakistan, meanwhile, are on course to put last week aside as an unfortunate blip, and walk away with the authority to claim that their UAE formula still adds up.