Sweat, sweeps and salvation for Australia
by Daniel Brettig in Dubai · 8 months ago
In the year of ball-tampering and bans, a weakened team found a way to survive more overs than any Australian side before them to snatch a dramatic drawFor the first time in 2018, new territory for Australian cricket represents a point of pride rather than a moment of madness. In the year of ball-tampering, bans and backlash, a severely weakened Test team found a way to survive more overs than any Australian side before them to snatch a draw from Pakistan out of the dust of Dubai. History made, leaving a series still to be won.When Australia began their occupation on day four, they faced the prospect of 140 overs to block out; more than a day and a half of batting on a pockmarked and spinning pitch. In the team's rearview mirror was the loss of all 10 wickets for 60 runs on day two; looming in the headlights were Yasir Shah, Bilal Asif and Mohammad Abbas.
Never had Australia lasted more than 90 overs in the fourth innings for a draw in Asia. A team shorn of Steven Smith and David Warner? Forgeddaboutit! To paraphrase Ray Warren's call of an end-to-end Queensland try in a famous State of Origin encounter, that's not a draw, that's a miracle.
And whose miracle was this, forged amid enervating heat and all sorts of mental blocks. It belonged, chiefly, to Usman Khawaja, conjuring the greatest of his Test innings and one of the greatest save-a-game efforts in all of Test history. Only Michael Atherton, for 643 minutes at Johannesburg in 1995, had batted longer in a fourth innings than Khawaja's 524 minutes for 141. Much as the Wanderers has remained Atherton's signature moment, so too Dubai will always be associated with Khawaja.
From the very start of his first-innings 85, Khawaja showed evidence of strong planning, deep concentration and vastly improved fitness. While he joined his team-mates in the hole they fell into after an initial opening stand of 142 with Aaron Finch, Khawaja had provided an example for others, as underlined by a post-play discussion in the middle with the rest of the side's left-handers. As Travis Head attested, Khawaja's strength of mind and sureness of method was something to be followed.
In the second innings, Khawaja added a fusillade of reverse sweeps, 21 in all, to confound Yasir in particular. In the consistency of the shot's use and its proficiency, Khawaja recalled a famous World Cup innings by Graham Gooch at Mumbai in 1987, when he swept Maninder Singh and India out of the tournament. But the use of attack as the best form of defence over such a prolonged period provided a reminder of how much quality may be found in Khawaja's cultured hands, now without peer as the most skilled in this Australian batting line-up. He played the innings of a senior player, and a leader. As so many in the team had said before this match, it should not require the bestowal of a formal title to make one.
Accompanying Khawaja for the best part of 50 overs across close to two full sessions was Head, the South Australian captain and debutant. Here was another example of deep concentration but also rapid learning. Having looked lost in the first innings, Head found his way through the testing early passages on the fourth evening and slowly gathered confidence, punching the ball with clear intent off both front and back feet. He did not always get it right: the sweep did not work for him and he may easily have been lbw playing it against Yasir when he was on 44. But overall Head showed he was a willing pupil in these conditions, and with Khawaja turned the draw from a theoretical possibility to a tangible one.
After Head and Marnus Labuschagne both fell to skidding deliveries made possible by the second new ball, Tim Paine walked to the middle with a keen desire to salvage more from this day. He had, as a far younger man, made quality runs in Asian conditions on the 2010 tour of India - at the time describing conditions as the toughest he had ever encountered. But now as Australian captain, having also delivered 222.1 spotless overs behind the stumps, Paine was highly invested in this team and this scenario.
His early overs in the middle were fraught just about every ball. One Yasir legbreak, left alone with a clear sight of the stumps, failed to disturb the off peg by approximately one millimetre, and there were numerous other strangled appeals. But little by little, Paine gained a foothold, aided by Khawaja's serene presence at the other end. Slowly the minutes ticked past, and tea arrived without a further wicket. Five left to survive the match's final session, in which an average of 4.75 wickets had fallen across each of the previous four days, meant that Paine's Australians now had a glimmer, however slight.
When eventually fatigue and sweeping got the better of Khawaja, lbw to a perfectly pitched googly by Yasir from around the wicket, the final hour had already begun. Time was running short, but there was plenty for Pakistan to conjure a win - just ask the West Indies and their inattentive No. 11 Shannon Gabriel. Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle were unable to endure, as 15 overs with five wickets left became 12 with a measly two. Nathan Lyon, so often the last man out in Australian defeats, marched to the middle at No. 10.
The closing overs were incredibly tense, with the benefit of a Paine inside edge onto pad meaning that Pakistan were out of reviews. Yasir, Abbas and Bilal all tried their wares, with Sarfraz Ahmed unwilling to try a wayward Wahab Riaz, despite his greater pace. Paine's bat, for the most part broad, also found fortuitous edges, one fractionally over the stumps from Yasir, another marginally past them from Abbas. Strained smiles from Pakistan's fielders and an increasingly grimacing face from their coach Mickey Arthur told a tale that climaxed with something as simple as a Paine forward defence, and then a fist pump. Australia did not, in the end, bat out 140 overs, but only because Sarfraz offered his hand to Paine after 139.5.
For the coach Justin Langer, this was a result to epitomise the type of Australian team he and Paine are trying to build - hard to beat at first, and then ever more frequently victorious. Langer, of course, had been involved in one other result commonly viewed as miraculous, the fabled Hobart chase against Pakistan in 1999. Where that victory, complete with centuries to Langer and Adam Gilchrist, had jumpstarted Australia's reign of dominance, this one picked a previously forlorn team off the Newlands killing floor.
Langer has reflected on that result, where his outward positivity when Gilchrist arrived had masked a sense of impending doom, and thoughts mainly of keeping his tenuous spot. "Gilly walks out, and I'm being positive, saying, 'If you just hang in there, you never know what could happen. Let's see if we can stick it out till stumps, it might rain tomorrow'. He goes, 'Yeah, yeah, no worries'," Langer said last year. "I was just trying to say the right things but thinking to myself, we're going to lose this Test but if I get 50 not out I might get another Test match..."
Similar exchanges were had between Khawaja and Head, then Khawaja and Paine. In the closing overs, Paine and Lyon tried to relax by talking about watching episodes of Inbetweeners. But at the end of all that talk, the nerves, the sweat and the sweeps, was salvation of a kind Australian cricket had not previously seen. In it came a significance that recalled Hobart, as Langer has often said: "It was significant personally, but for the Australian cricket team, it was actually the [third] of our 16-match winning streak. I think we thought if we could win from there, we could win from anywhere."
This wasn't a win, but very close to it for the psyche of this team. At the end of another famous draw, in 1984 against the West Indies, the then recently retired Rod Marsh rang the Caribbean to inform the batting hero Allan Border and the captain Kim Hughes that a rare non-winning rendition of the team song had his blessing. In the heat, dust and glare of Dubai, another Australian team forged a similar piece of history, at a time when it was so sorely needed.