Shaheen, Naseem shine as Pak-Australia Test evenly poised

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Australia's Alex Carey celebrates after scoring a half-century (50 runs) during the second day of the third cricket Test match between Pakistan and Australia at the Gaddafi Cricket Stadium in Lahore on March 22, 2022. (Photo by Aamir QURESHI / AFP)

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LAHORE: Australia have been left to rue another squandered chance that enabled Pakistan to survive the final session of the second day for the loss of a solitary wicket, and with the prospect of another lengthy slog in the sub continental heat.

After Pakistan produced a masterclass in reverse swing to restrict Australia’s first innings to 391, the visitors were unable to generate a similar response with the ball this evening which Pakistan ended 1-90 with obdurate opener Abdullah Shafique 45no and local hero Azhar Ali unbeaten on 30.

In a haunting reprise of the luckless final two days of the second Test, Australia secured a solitary breakthrough from the 39 overs they sent down tonight although it might have been more had the catching woes from Karachi also not resurfaced.

And compounding the tourists’ woes was a wasted review in the final overs when skipper Pat Cummins hopefully called for closer scrutiny of an lbw shout against Azhar (on 25) which was shown to be comprehensively missing leg stump.

For the third time in two innings, Cummins had Shafique (on 13) edging to slip but so close to the bat was Steve Smith the ball had flown past his left ankle before he was able to react.

Smith had revealed prior to this Test that so low and slow were the pitches in Pakistan, Australia had deemed it better to have their catchers too close and risk turfing chances than to deploy them in more traditional positions where edges were unlikely to carry.

However, with Cummins identifying a weakness in Shafique’s game similar to the manner in which Australia repeatedly dismissed England captain Joe Root during the recent Ashes series, the cost of not grasping opportunities offered by the opener was highlighted in Karachi where he endured for a further five hours.

The increasing value of the 22-year-old’s wicket is reflected by the fact he’s poised to post his fifth half-century in just his fifth Test, with no Pakistan opener boasting a better average than his current 80.66 at the same embryonic stage of their careers.

Cummins had made his team’s initial breakthrough four overs earlier when, having brought himself back after a three-overs spell from Green, he slid a ball into Imam ul Haq and caught the opener in front of his stumps.

Imam’s removal brought a memorable moment for 37-year-old Azhar Ali who – despite having played the first of his 94 Tests to date almost 12 years ago – strode out to bat in front of his home town fans for the first time given Lahore has not previously hosted a Test in that period.

They will surely be cheering their man on tomorrow as Pakistan look to replicate their Karachi effort where they survived almost 172 overs across two days to save the second Test.

Although at their current rate of scoring in this innings – around 2.25 runs per over – if Pakistan are not bowled out earlier, it will be around lunch on day four before they reach parity with Australia.

After Cameron Green and Alex Carey raised Australia’s hopes of a 400-plus score by batting through the day’s first session and adding 88 runs from 28 overs in that time, their final five wickets fell for 50 after lunch as Pakistan’s pace bowlers weaved their magic.

As both teams had predicted prior to the start of Gadaffi Stadium’s first Test in 13 years, reverse swing proved the dominant factor and there was no more impressive practitioner of the much mytholigised art than 19-year-old Naseem Shah.

Naseem had blazed on to the international scene aged 16 at the Gabba in 2019, but endured a forgettable first day as a Test cricketer that yielded no wickets despite thinking he’d dismissed Australia opener David Warner from what was shown to be a no-ball.

But having removed Steve Smith and Travis Head yesterday, Naseem outshone his more credentialled pace partner Shaheen Shah Afridi (4-79) today to finish with innings figures of 4-58 from a gut-busting 31 overs.

So committed to the cause was Naseem, who in 2020 became the youngest men’s player to claim a Test hat-trick, he almost bowled himself into the parched centre-wicket square in restricting Australia to their first sub-400 first innings total of the three-match series.

After operating for four high-octane overs in the hour before tea, during which he produced the ball of the day to knock over an otherwise assured Green, Naseem sunk to his haunches after the penultimate ball of his fifth over in apparent distress amid Lahore’s 33C heat.

But not only did he gather himself to complete the over, he fired down another stumps-seeking missile that bamboozled Nathan Lyon and thumped into the batter’s bats before spreadeagling his stumps.

Shaheen chimed in with the wickets of Mitchells Starc and Swepson, but Australia would not have been disappointed with their tally on a pitch that will only become tougher to bat upon as its minimal life force drains out, and having been 2-8 inside the opening 10 minutes of the match.

That total was due largely to the efforts of Green (79 in 225 minutes) and Carey (67 in 175) who joined forces with their team in peril yesterday evening and not only survived against the second new ball and reverse swing, but scored at a clip not seen before or since in this Test.

The pair’s 135-run partnership was not only Australia’s best for the sixth-wicket in Pakistan, it’s only been dwarfed across all matches between the teams by a couple of stands from Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist – at the WACA in 2004 (152) and their famous Hobart union in 1999 (238). Furthermore, Australia’s comeback after finishing the previous evening 5-206 represented their best batting recovery in Tests on Pakistan’s turf since the similarly poised 1980 Test at the same venue, where an unbeaten 150 from Allan Border enabled them to bounce back from 5-204 to post 7(dec)-407.