Domain Test Series v Pakistan
Misbah on Smith, Yasir and his potential 'match-winner'
Pakistan coach Misbah-ul-Haq speaks exclusively to cricket.com.au about how to bowl to Steve Smith and his high hopes for his young pace attack
18 November 2019, 09:28 PM AEST
Pakistan's record in Test cricket in Australia is unbecoming of a team that has been an established cricket nation for more than five decades, been the top-ranked team in the world on two occasions and produced legendary cricketers like Imran Khan, Wasim Akram, Javed Miandad, Waqar Younis and Younis Khan.
In their entire history, Pakistan have won just four Tests Down Under and none in the past 24 years, a period in which they have been whitewashed 3-0 four times in a row.
Four of the current squad – Imam-ul-Haq, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Musa Khan – weren't even born when Pakistan last won a Test in Australia (in Sydney in 1995), while star batsman Babar Azam was only a toddler.
Pakistan's current squad is full of young and inexperienced cricketers, so the challenge to win their two-match Domain Test Series – starting on Thursday at the Gabba – is bigger than ever.
But new coach Misbah-ul-Haq believes it's time to correct history.
"Our previous record in Australia won't put us under pressure," Misbah told cricket.com.au.
"If anything, it'll be an opportunity and motivation to win because whatever we couldn't achieve in the past, we can do now.
"It's a young and hungry team and it means business. This team wants to take the challenge. We want to give our best, play good cricket and think about winning.
"We have some positives to take from the last tour, too. We came close winning the Brisbane Test (in 2016) but dropped catches and the last-wicket partnership in the first innings became the difference between losing and winning.
"I'm hopeful we'll do better this time."
Misbah on … Steve Smith
Steve Smith, the world's top-ranked Test batsman, made a dream comeback to Tests this year with 774 runs at a whopping average of 110.58 in the Ashes and will start the home summer on the back of two centuries in the Marsh Sheffield Shield.
Misbah knows Pakistan can't afford to repeat the mistakes of three years ago; Smith was dropped twice during his match-winning innings of 130 at the Gabba in 2016, while a nick behind was also not picked up by the visitors, handing the Australian a third reprieve.
In a match Pakistan lost by just 39 runs, it proved to be the difference.
"No doubt Steve Smith is a top player in Test cricket, especially after his performance in the Ashes and the way he played against us in the T20s," Misbah said.
"He's a tough opponent. He has less weak areas where you can bowl and get him out, he's an immensely important player for Australia and the backbone of their batting.
"For us, it'll be important to get his wicket early in the innings because once he's set, he can play the sort of innings that can take you out of the match.
"We've got to be consistent, bowl to him in good areas and make him play early in the innings.
"If you bowl to him at the fourth-stump line and make him play from there, there can be a chance for a nick."
Misbah on … Yasir Shah
Misbah's assessment of Smith might be driven from the fact that three out of Smith's four dismissals in the 2016-17 series came off edges to wicketkeeper Sarfaraz Ahmed, twice off Yasir Shah's bowling and once off Wahab Riaz.
Since Yasir theoretically has more chances of inducing nicks because he turns the ball away from right-handers, he might again be Pakistan's go-to bowler against Smith.
Smith has been dismissed by Yasir six times in Tests and averages only 31.16 against him, which is quite low by his standards. He was also dismissed twice by Danish Kaneria, another leg-spinner, on his Test debut against Pakistan at Lord's way back in 2010.
That means eight of his 12 dismissals against Pakistan have come against leg-spinners, while he was also dropped off Azhar Ali's part-time leg-spin in that Brisbane Test three years ago.
That record might compel Pakistan to keep Yasir in their XI, despite his poor returns in the southern hemisphere, where he has taken only nine wickets from six Tests at an average of 95.11. Pakistan accordingly dropped him in New Zealand in 2016, axed him again in South Africa earlier this year while he also bowled with little success in Australia in 2016-17.
"We know Yasir hasn't done well in these conditions, but three years is a long time. He now has experience of playing in Australia," Misbah said.
"He's coming on this tour on the back of some good performances in first-class cricket, where he's bowled long spells. He's worked a lot on his bowling, keeping the conditions in mind. We'll make the final game plan and see how effective Yasir is in it."
Misbah on … Babar Azam
Smith is Australia's key batsman and Pakistan will be banking on Babar Azam to play a similar role. The 25-year-old has been their best batsman across all three formats in the past couple of years, averaging 50.66 in Tests since 2018 compared to 23.75 before that.
However, Babar would want to put the ghosts of his previous series in Australia behind him before he takes guard in the first Test in Brisbane. He could muster only 68 runs at 11.33 across six innings here three years ago but a century against Australia A in the tour match in Perth last week has given him some momentum going into the series.
"There is a world of difference between Babar of 2016 and Babar now," Misbah says. "He's now a matured and experienced player.
"In 2016, he was very new and didn't have much experience in Test cricket. Also, he was batting at number three. Now he's batting in the middle-order and has the experience of three (more) years on his side.
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"He did well in South Africa and batted beautifully against fast bowling.
"There is improvement in his batting.
"He plays good shots on the back foot, which will be handy in these conditions. He's scored runs in T20s as well as in the tour match so he'll be coming into the series on the back of some good form. He's our key player."
Misbah on … Pakistan's fast bowlers
Pakistan are looking confident in the batting department after posting some solid totals in their tour matches in Perth, but the bowlers will also need to fire in order to give them any chance.
Their pace resources are exciting and talented, but also highly inexperienced. The five fast bowlers in the squad have between them played only 26 Tests; Mohammad Abbas has 14 Tests under his belt, while Imran Khan (nine), Shaheen Shah Afridi (three) Musa Khan and Naseem Shah (both uncapped) are all yet to reach double digits.
As Pakistan learned on their previous tour, the conditions in Australia can put bowlers' fitness to the test as much as their skills. Their seamers Imran and Sohail Khan struggled to bowl comeback spells three years ago while Mohammad Amir also had to leave the field on couple of occasions. Imran is the only survivor from that squad but hasn't played a Test since the 2017 SCG match, when David Warner clattered a century before lunch.
"I had a meeting with the regional coaches (and) there was a unanimous opinion that Imran Khan has been bowling really well," said Misbah, who is also the chief selector.
"In the past, he used to struggle with his comeback spells and he used to drop pace. He's worked really hard on his strength (and) is much fitter than before."
While Pakistan have some experience in the form of Imran and Abbas, who tormented Australia with 17 wickets in the two-match home series last year, their trump card could be the teenaged Naseem.
The youngster showed a glimpse of his talent with a fiery eight-over spell against Australia A in Perth and gave the home side's left-handers a hard time. His ability to extract bounce and beat the bat has already caught the attention of the cricket world.
"The best thing about Naseem Shah is the control he has on his bowling," said Misbah. "He has a very good bowling action and knows which deliveries to bowl. He can bowl with a very good control.
"He knows his stuff and bowled really well in the first-class matches he played this season. He's bowled well here too and is the standout bowler for us. The way he's been bowling, he can be a match-winner for us."
Over the years, many great fast bowlers from Pakistan have come to Australia but not won a series. In 1989-90, Pakistan toured with Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis but returned without winning a match. Ten years later, Shoaib Akhtar joined Wasim and Waqar, but again they returned empty-handed.
Misbah says there's an opportunity for his young attack to surpass the achievements of those legends and win a series on Australian soil.
"In these conditions, you've got to have good bowling options," he said. "You've got to have a bowling attack that can give you 20 wickets.
"Our bowlers are in form and in good rhythm (and) we're hopeful that we'll give a tough time to Australia."
Domain Test Series v Pakistan
Australia squad: Tim Paine (c), Cameron Bancroft, Joe Burns, Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner
Pakistan squad: Azhar Ali (c), Abid Ali, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Haris Sohail, Imam-ul-Haq, Imran Khan Snr, Iftikhar Ahmed, Kashif Bhatti, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Rizwan (wk), Musa Khan, Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Shan Masood, Yasir Shah.
Warm-up match: Australia A v Pakistan, match drawn
Warm-up match: v Cricket Australia XI, November 15-16, WACA Ground
First Test: November 21-25, Gabba (Seven, Fox & Kayo)