Match Report:


Marsh leads Aussie fightback after Pakistan new-ball blitz

Pakistan prised the door ajar on a dramatic day but Mitch Marsh's 96 helped Australia build a healthy lead

Australia v Pakistan | Second Test | Day 3

Pakistan's enigmatically erratic slips fielding might have robbed Mitchell Marsh of a cherished Boxing Day Test hundred, but it also seems likely to have cost them a chance of snapping a lengthy losing streak in Australia.

With his family watching on, Marsh seemed destined to secure the century that had agonisingly eluded him in Perth earlier this month before being brilliantly caught one-handed by Salman Ali Agha diving low to right with the Australia allrounder just one hefty blow shy of the milestone.

The moment was rendered more ironically bittersweet because Marsh should have been dismissed 76 runs earlier when he nicked seamer Aamir Jamal to the same fielding spot only to see a significantly more simple chance spilled.

Marsh heartbreak as slips ripper ends knock on 96

That proved the pivotal moment of a previously finely balanced contest, with Australia recovering from a dire 4-16 to reach 6-187 at stumps on day three, holding an overall lead of 241.

Pakistan will need a record fourth-innings score at the MCG to snare a drought-breaking Test win, with the challenges facing batters on a bowler-friendly underscored by the fact Steve Smith's struggling knock featured the second-slowest 50 (off 153 balls) in his lengthy and prolific Test career.

And while he was dismissed from the day's final ball having been marooned on 50 for 23 balls, Australia resumed tomorrow with Alex Carey 16 not out and looking to push their advantage beyond the 332 which remains the highest successful fourth-innings run chase at the ground.

That was achieved by England in 1928-29, and Pakistan's task would surely appear vastly less daunting if that earlier opportunity had been grasped.

Marsh was on 20 and already looming as the most formidable obstacle standing between Pakistan and a gettable fourth-innings run chase when he was gifted the life by Pakistan opener Abdullah Shafique.

Adding to the dark humour of his eventual dismissal, Marsh might still have been removed on 20 if Salman (at that stage standing at second slip) had taken the rebound as the ball bounced from Shafique's iron hands.

If it's imaginable, the catch that flew at waist height to Shafique at first slip was even more straightforward than the one he shelled off David Warner on the opening morning of this match.

But whereas the Australia opener added just 36 more after that howler on Tuesday, Marsh not only pushed on to the highest individual score of the game but forged a decisive 153-run fifth-wicket partnership with Smith.

Marsh celebrated his reprieve by driving Aamir's next delivery with force to mid-off, where Pakistan skipper Shan Masood's fumbled attempt to intercept it brought four runs and a howling, derisive cheer from the almost 40,000-strong MCG crowd.

Had Shafique held that routine offering, Australia would have been on the mat at 5-46 holding a precipitous overall lead of just 100.

As it transpires, Pakistan already need to find the highest successful fourth-innings total by a visiting team at the MCG since South Africa's 4-297 in 1952-53 to level the NRMA Insurance Series at 1-1 and snap a streak of 15 consecutive Test defeats in Australia stretching back 28 years.

Until that pivotal moment that came from the first ball after the drinks break that signified the mid-point of this match, Pakistan resembled an irresistible force due to the potency of their pace bowling.

Marsh falls just short of counter-attacking ton

The fightback that had begun when the four quicks added 49 invaluable runs with their bats in gloomy, drizzly conditions this morning became a full-scale victory charge when Australia crashed to 4-16 immediately after lunch.

It represented the worst start by the men's team to a Test innings on home soil since the infamous Hobart defeat to South Africa in 2016, when a first morning scoreline of 5-17 became 85 all out and then a bruising series defeat that ended a number of international careers.

The carnage began just two balls into the innings which Australia began with a lead of 54, when Usman Khawaja copped a ball from Shaheen Shah Afridi that angled and held its line before grazing the bat's edge.

Australia's first innings top scorer Marnus Labuschagne then managed a solitary scoring shot in the second, a leg glance from the start of Shaheen's next over that prompted the left-armer to instigate a field change that proved a stroke of genius.

Sensing Labuschagne's vulnerability around leg stump, he positioned a catcher behind square and targeted the Australian's left ankle and was rewarded with a tickle down the leg side that keeper Mohammad Rizwan gleefully accepted from what proved the final ball before lunch.

The visitors' surge was slowed only by a malfunctioning MCG lift that entrapped third umpire Richard Illingworth on his way back from the venue's lunch room, ensuring play's resumption was delayed by six minutes until he could scramble back to his post.

When play eventually began, the attack was taken up by Shaheen's new-ball partner Mir Hamza whose dismissal of Warner – in his final Test innings at the MCG – might be viewed as somewhat fortuitous given the opener dragged a half-hearted pull shot on to the base of his stumps.

But the warm applause that accompanied Warner from the field had barely subdued before Hamza produced perhaps the ball of the series to date that speared through Travis Head's speculative defence and bent back middle stump.

Head could do little except shake his head in wistful disbelief as he walked off watching a replay of the delivery that began outside his off stump then snaked back late in the air to scythe between bat and pad.

'Genuis' Hamza goes through Head first ball

It was a feat of bowling craftmanship reminiscent of another lethal left-armer, former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram who greeted the dismissal with understandable enthusiasm in the Fox Cricket commentary box.

Hamza's hat-trick ball was pitched too wide of off-stump to lure Marsh into playing, but for the next half-hour it seemed Australia's innings was hanging by a thread as the quicks repeatedly threatened, with Hasan Ali flashing past Marsh's outside edge twice in his opening over.

The manner and speed at which Pakistan then unravelled from dominant to dormant after Shafique's inexcusable lapse would have proved an unsolvable mystery had it befallen any other Test outfit.

But such is the riches-or-rags nature of the perennially volatile team the sudden shift that came over the game could hardly be described as unexpected.

Of similar contrast was the output of Smith and Marsh, with the former waging a war with himself as well as opposition bowlers to find rhythm and timing while the latter mixed brute strength with stour defence to take the game away from Pakistan.

Marsh's half-century, his third from four innings thus far in this series, arrived from just 70 balls faced and 94 minutes at the crease during which he struck nine boundaries.

Smith, on the other hand, did not find the rope until the 101st delivery he faced by which time he'd been in occupation for more than two and a half hours and advanced his score to 32.

In addition to the dropped catch, the pair enjoyed some good fortune with Marsh surviving a tight lbw shout on 25 when he shouldered arms to Hasan Ali and Pakistan's review failed to overturn umpire Michael Gough's not out call even though the ball was found to be clipping the top of off stump.

And having ground his way to 40, Smith seemed to be finding some fluency when he walked across his wicket and was pinned by Shaheen who couldn't hide his disbelief when another review also upheld the umpire's call with an insufficient portion of the ball grazing leg stump.

However, apart from the early stages of their stand when Marsh claimed he felt "like a cat on a hot tin roof … with a defence like Swiss cheese', the duo not only blunted the world-class seam bowling on a challenging surface but broke the Pakistan spirit that had soared immediately after lunch.

That sagging of spirits was understandable given the effort their bowlers had expended to get them back in the game, initially with the bat after they seemed destined to cede Australia a hefty first innings lead.

The advantage stood at 103 when Pakistan's last recognised batter Rizwan fell to a carefully constructed and flawlessly hatched plan that saw him slap a catch to short cover.

Cummins strikes gold with 10th five-wicket haul

But Australia's hopes their rivals tailenders might capitulate in the morning mizzle that delayed play's start by 45 minutes were stymied as the bowlers – led by Aamir (33no) and Shaheen (21) who recorded career-high Test scores – added an invaluable 49 before the innings ended 54 in deficit.

In claiming two of Pakistan's four wickets to fall today, Pat Cummins completed the 10th five-wicket haul of his Test career while Carey also completed a notable feat.

In wrapping up Pakistan's innings with a neat stumping off Nathan Lyon, whose 4-73 extended his Test wicket tally to 505, the Australia keeper claimed his ninth such dismissal for 2023 having started the year with none to his name in a 14-Test tenure to that point.

Carey now stands equal with former great Ian Healy's record for the most Test stumpings in a calendar year, with only historic glovemen James (J.J.) Kelly (10 in 1902) and Hanson 'Sammy' Carter (11 in 1921) surpassing that number in a given year.

Fast hands from Carey catches Hamza short

NRMA Insurance Test series v Pakistan

First Test: Australia won by 360 runs

Second Test: December 26-30, MCG (10.30am AEDT)

Third Test: January 3-7, SCG (10.30am AEDT)

Australia squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitch Marsh, Steve Smith, Mitch Starc, David Warner

Pakistan squad: Shan Masood (c), Aamir Jamal, Abdullah Shafique, Abrar Ahmed, Babar Azam, Faheem Ashraf, Hasan Ali, Imam-ul-Haq, Mir Hamza, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Mohammad Wasim Jnr, Saim Ayub, Salman Ali Agha, Sarfaraz Ahmed (wk), Saud Shakeel and Shaheen Shah Afridi