By our correspondent
KARACHI: Usman Khawaja (127*) hit his third century in his fourth Test since returning to Test cricket after staying away for 29 months and guided Australia to 251-3 at stumps on the first day of their second Test against Pakistan here at the National Stadium on Saturday.
Having come within a miscued reverse sweep of a special century near the city of his birth last week, Usman Khawaja today embraced destiny with a heart-warming hundred in the place his parents lived and worked before the family moved to Islamabad and – eventually – Australia.
Khawaja’s extraordinary form since regaining his place in Australia’s Test team as a COVID-19 substitute for Travis Head two months ago has brought the left-hander 479 runs with three centuries and the prospect of more tomorrow.
But it’s doubtful any of those runs, or the 2887 that preceded them, have carried as much personal significance given the 35-year-old’s historic family connection with Karachi where he had never before played cricket until today.
It was also a crucial contribution for his team which ended the opening day of the second Test 3-251, with Pakistan grabbing a vital late breakthrough when Steve Smith (72) again fell within sight of a drought-breaking century following a stunning catch by Faheem Ashraf in the day’s penultimate over.
They might also have claimed night-watchman Nathan Lyon in the final over if Imam-ul-Haq had held a sharp chance at short leg.
Smith and Khawaja had put together an increasingly patient partnership of 159 from 68 overs before the second new-ball brought success against the run of a dour final few hours.
Despite claiming the wickets of David Warner (36) and Marnus Labuschagne (0) in an evenly matched first session, and then applying the squeeze to Khawaja and Smith when the ball began to reverse swing in the second, Pakistan spent most of the last session in defence. Recalled quick Hasan Ali had got the ball to reverse after 40 overs, and the phenomenon – which Australia captain Pat Cummins had predicted would be a factor as early as day one – became even more noticeable after the middle-of-day drinks break.
For the next 13 overs, nine of which were sent down by Pakistan’s three-pronged seam attack, Khawaja and Smith managed just 15 runs as they defended doggedly particularly against Shaheen Shah Afridi who bowled four consecutive maidens.
But with their quicks unable to snare a breakthrough even though there was discernible movement with the worn ball, spinners Nauman Ali and Sajid Khan spent the first hour of the post-tea session bowling wide of leg stump at both Khawaja and right-handed Smith.
The Australia batters opted not to risk falling for the sucker punch by trying force the pace, so the game effectively descended into a staring contest, with similar eye watering potential.
The farce was completed by the sight of part-timers Babar Azam and Azhar Ali sending down a motley mix of full tosses and slow spinners for four overs before the second new ball was taken shortly prior to stumps.
By that stage, the Australia pair were so well set at the crease they had few difficulties in negotiating the initial overs of pace until Smith looked to guide a ball to third man only for it to end up wedged in Faheem’s outstretched left claw.
The braking tactic had stalled a run rate that peaked at almost five an over in the hour after Cummins won the toss and reduced it to less than three by day’s end, it also sent a clear message Pakistan were prepared to give up any pretence of taking wickets for a lengthy stretch.
Khawaja has also forged a productive union with his former junior cricket teammate and close friend Warner with the pair again at ease against the new ball today until Warner edged behind.
And when Labuschagne self-destructed soon after to leave Australia 2-91 shortly before lunch, the stand between Khawaja and Smith carried vital significance.
Labuschagne’s demise came when he looked to get off the mark after punching Nauman forcefully to mid-off and narrowly failed to beat a neat pick-up and bulls-eye side-arm throw from Sajid Khan.
It was the first time Labuschagne had failed to score in a Test innings since being dismissed for a second-ball duck in his debut match against Pakistan at Dubai in 2018.
What has proved less infrequent, however, is that mode of dismissal.
The 27-year-old recorded his first run out in the second Test of a career that has seen him installed as the top-ranked long-form batter in the world, and has been caught short of his ground three more times in his subsequent 39 innings across 25 appearances.
Unfortunately for Labuschagne and his team, his run of scores since gaining top place in the ICC global Test rankings last December – seven innings with a solitary half-century and an average of 28 – is the leanest since his first seven knocks at Test level (average 29 with one 50).
But while Labuschagne’s dejection at having gifted his wicket on a batting surface for which his game seemed tailor-made, it brought redemption for Sajid who had been savaged in his initial spell prior to lunch.
The off-spinner, who finished Pakistan’s only bowling innings in the first Test with an unflattering 1-122, had coughed up 25 runs from his first four overs today having been brought into the attack barely half an hour into proceedings.
That included a pair of lofted sixes over long-off – one each from Australia’s opening pair who had clearly decided to target the right-hander in his sixth Test – in the final over before he was taken out of the attack, although that decision was more likely prompted by Warner’s dismissal.
The arrival of right-hander Labuschagne saw the immediate introduction of left-arm orthodox spinner Nauman who would turn the ball away from Australia’s number three.
Warner’s departure came against the day’s early trend after he and Khawaja had rattled along at greater than four runs an over in the opening hour when the Karachi pitch revealed itself to be as lacking in conventional swing as it was in new-ball bounce.
In one of the few false strokes from the increasingly emboldened opening pair, Khawaja edged the fifth ball of Hasan Ali’s first over but a combination of low bounce and soft hands on the bat meant the potential chance dropped well short of second slip.
From that moment, Pakistan’s only hope of a wicket seemed likely to be a Warner mis-hit as he looked to impose himself on the bowling and a couple of times chipped the ball just wide of or over fielders as he came to grips with the pace (or lack thereof) of the bare, dry track.
Then, with Australia seemingly destined for a second century opening stand in as many Tests, Faheem Ashraf, operating from around the wicket, angled a delivery in at Warner who was pinned to the crease and edged to keeper Mohammad Rizwan when the ball held its line.
Faheem’s inclusion in Pakistan’s line-up for the second Test brought an extra dimension to their bowling – a quality third seamer who Faheem missed first Test with hamstring injury, and earlier this week was ruled out of the second having tested positive to COVID-19 upon arriving at the hotel shared by both teams in Karachi last Wednesday and ordered to complete a mandatory five-day isolation.
But a day later, the 28-year-old all-rounder was declared available to play when a rapid antigen test reportedly showed a negative result
Hasan Ali had also missed the series opener with an adductor strain which, like Faheem’s hamstring problem, he suffered in the final stages of the recently completed Pakistan Super League domestic T20 tournament.
The pair’s return meant Pakistan omitted allrounder Iftikhar Ahmed and young fast bowler Naseem Shah who had been included in the starting XI at Rawalpindi as replacements for the injured duo.
Australia’s only change from the first Test that ended in a stultifying draw last Tuesday was the omission of Josh Hazlewood in favour of debutant leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson who received Baggy Green cap number 464 from his Queensland skipper, Khawaja, before play today.