A memorable day’s work from Mitchell Starc crowned a remarkable come-from-the-clouds Test win for his team as Pakistan’s batting capitulation sparked a euphoric Australian celebration amid a most improbable result.
Starc effectively altered the course of a Test that had drifted due to rain delays and absent intent across the first four days when he belted 84 from 91 balls faced in a brutal attack this morning that carried his team to a lead of 181 runs.
Which should never have been sufficient on a pitch that was neither wearing nor challenging, but on which Starc (four wickets) and maligned spinner Nathan Lyon (three) were able to capitalise on some insipid Pakistan batting to snatch victory by an innings and 18 runs.
With an hour left on the clock, and in the first of the mandatory 15 overs to be bowled in that time to secure an unassailable 2-0 lead in the three-match series.
Not since Australia stormed home over a hapless England at Adelaide Oval a decade ago has a Test match so seemingly foregone – allowing for the fact that had at least entered the second innings phase come the final day - turned in such a twinkle.
And Test cricket has not witnessed a similar capitulation, in which a team has posted more than 400 batting first only to find themselves on the end of an innings defeat, since … well, since it happened to England in Chennai 10 days ago.
The chances of bowling out a team that, less than a fortnight earlier, had set a new benchmark for fourth innings Test totals on Australia soil in essentially two sessions seemed outlandish on paper.
But as much as Pakistan had earned plaudits for their last-day heroics in Brisbane, they had coughed up a lamentable 9-72 inside a session in the Test prior to that to hand New Zealand a remarkable win in Hamilton.
So when out-of-form opener Sami Aslam was knocked over in ominous circumstances – playing a ball on to his pad from where it rolled into his stumps – in the second over of the innings, the game suddenly came alive.
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From 1-6 at lunch, Pakistan’s unwillingness to eat into the nominal 181-run deficit played into the hands of Australia whose persistence and pressure saw the regular tumble of wickets.
Some, like the pair of catches that Peter Handscomb plucked at short-leg from the re-born Lyon to excise Younus Khan (24) and Brisbane hero Asad Shafiq (16), were exquisite in their execution.
Others, glaringly the indulgent sweep shot from skipper Misbah-ul-Haq from the second delivery he faced after a similarly extravagant effort off the first had failed, betrayed a mindset of mild panic.
Even allowing for a recent run of form that has netted him 68 runs at the inadequate average of 9.7 over his past seven Test innings, Misbah’s failure at a moment that required a steely nerve and a leader’s example was difficult to rationalise.
It also meant his team suddenly found themselves 4-63 with almost 50 overs left in the day, with their best hope of making it to that distant refuge being redoubtable opener Azhar Ali, defiantly in occupation on 24.
Having batted unbeaten through Pakistan’s first innings that stretched into the Test’s third day – at which point the hopes of a result seemed as gloomy as Melbourne’s weather – Azhar had been on the field for all but that handful of overs late on day four when he copped a vicious blow to the head while fielding.
And retired to the dressing room for treatment and assessment.
But when Josh Hazlewood snuck one past the opener’s previously impregnable bat and Azhar’s beseeching call for a review failed to overturn umpire Ian Gould’s lbw verdict, the onus was once more on Pakistan’s tailenders to bail them out.
And as was ultimately the case facing a far sterner assignment at the Gabba, it proved beyond them.
After Lyon had kicked open the door to a most improbable win with three crucial top-order wickets at the very time his future in the Test Xi was being widely debated, Starc roared back to finish the job.
Blasting through the defences of the final batting impediment Sarfraz Ahmed and then tailender Wahab Riaz in the space of an over which left Pakistan slumped on the ropes, scarcely believing their predicament, at 9-159.
Which became defeat when Starc had last man Yasir Shah caught at mid-on from a leading edge to hand him the final three scalps in as many overs, with Pakistan rolling over in a tick over four overs in less than 54 overs.
A Test that had glowed as brightly as Melbourne’s leaden Boxing Day skies across its first four days burst into incandescence on the morning of the fifth, thanks to a healthy infusion of Australian enterprise.
From the moment Pakistan won the toss and batted, they had seemed hell bent on ensuring they avoided defeat.
But as the final day dawned clear and sunny, and with an additional hour’s play appended to try and claw back the shortfall in overs already lost to rain, it became obvious that the home team was the only one that held a chance of winning.
Albeit an improbable one, built on the audacious proposition that Australia’s tailenders – in concert with their skipper, unbeaten on 100 – could score heavily at a rate largely unseen for much of the match.
And then Pakistan’s batting would implode on a surface where wickets had proved tougher to prise out than Christmas season revellers who had retired to the MCG’s bars during the many and lengthy breaks in on-field action.
The first part of that equation fell into place so clinically that it immediately put in doubt the ability to enact the equation.
Starc swung so lustily and regularly at a Pakistan bowling attack that was unable to find any menace in a day five pitch it seemed specialist batters would be impossible to remove.
He belted more sixes (seven) than any player previously in an MCG Test as Pakistan’s exasperation levels peaked, a fact revealed by the raggedness and weariness that came to exemplify their ground fielding.
Unnecessary overthrows and run out missed chances as the Australians looked to steal every available single, and then some, were not as decisive as the blows that Starc delivered.
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His front foot thrust down the pitch followed by a swing of the bat predicated on the knowledge the ball would not deviate from the straight, he routinely cleared the fence in an arc from long-off to square leg.
Pakistan’s response was to bowl short to Starc, aiming into his chest to prevent him from freeing his arms while the plan to Steve Smith was to push the ball ever wider of off stump as he walked his way across his stumps to render them all but irrelevant.
Both strategies proved equally ineffectual as the pair added 154 from 30 overs – just 31 shy of Australia’s best seventh-wicket effort at the ground and against Pakistan - of audacious batting and Smith remained imperiously unconquered on 165.
But with a minimum of 68 overs remaining in the match and a skinny surplus of just 181 in the bank, a result seemed as likely as another cloudburst on a day that offered nothing but blue sky.
Until the wobbly boots that have been historically and uncomfortably associated with Pakistan cricket were fitted and started to uncontrollably shake.
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