Australia v Pakistan 2nd Test Boxing Day Test Match @ MCG
Preview - Australia get the opportunity for their first series victory in three attempts when they host Pakistan in the traditional Boxing Day Test Match at the MCG. After back-to-back desperately disappointing series away to Sri Lanka and at home to South Africa, Australia have responded well to a raft of changes made by the selectors winning their last five matchers including two Tests and three ODIs. After rare back-to-back pink ball Test matches, fans will flock to the MCG for the traditional Boxing Day match with the usual morning starts, red ball and coliseum like atmosphere. Australia got the fright of their lives at the Gabba, when, having been in total command of the first three and half days, Pakistan rallied to make 451 in chase of a record 491 they were set in the 4th Innings. While Australia played by far the better cricket for most of the Test match, Pakistan will take plenty of positives from the Gabba, and can be expected to be much sharper in the first couple of days in Melbourne.
Australia Scouting Report - Australia's batting line finally appears to be taking shape with Matt Renshaw and Peter Handscomb locking in their spots for the near future with really encouraging efforts in their first two Tests. I would argue Handscomb has the potential to bat in Australia's middle order for the next 7-10 years without being dropped, such was his class and composure shown in Adelaide and then Brisbane. Handscomb appears like a slightly watered down version of Michael Hussey, a middle order player Australia has been missing for a few years. Gutsy, intelligent and capable of scoring off both front and back foot, Handscomb appears adaptable and calm under pressure. Renshaw's best innings was his 1st Innings 74 in front of his home fans, where he found a great balance between occupying the crease and still batting with intent. The only big question mark over Australia's batting line up remains the Number 6 position, and the under pressure Nic Maddinson. It was the right call to retain Maddinson in the line-up, whether you think he is the right solution long term or not. I don't, however you don't pick a batsman and then hang him out to dry after three innings, both coming in rare pink ball Test matches, and one of those innings coming with Australia's declaration imminent and Maddinson selflessly trying to score quick runs. With Steve Smith and Khawaja both in fine form this season, all Australia will want to see is some runs from David Warner who had a strangely subdued year in Test Cricket, averaging 35 and returning to the MCG which has been somewhat of a bogey ground for him.
Australia's fast bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Jackson Bird head to Melbourne off the back of a heavy workload in Brisbane. With Australia forced to abandon their all-rounder policy momentarily due to a lack of runs from the Top 6 and series losses, they are back playing a more traditional line up of four bowlers, meaning extra work loads for the quicks. Jackson Bird repaid the faith selectors displayed in him by taking 6 wickets at an average of 22 for the game. Bird now was 30 wickets in 7 Tests at the impressive average of 25. Mitchell Starc has not quite been at his devastating best this summer, however has still managed to take 21 wickets in 4 Test Matches at an average of 28. Nathan Lyon remains a man under pressure despite bowling quite well in Adelaide and Brisbane. Lyon has just 8 wickets in 4 Tests this summer, at an average over 60, and with India on the horizon can ill afford a couple more Tests without making an impact. There doesn't quite seem to be the same level of trust with Steve Smith, as opposed to Michael Clarke, who used Lyon early and often.
Pakistan Scouting Report -The Tourists have a pretty strong side on paper. I think for them it's more a case of playing with more confidence and adjusting some of their tactics. Where Pakistan lack experience is in the top order, with just 14 Tests between opener Sami Aslan and Number 3 Baba Azam. The pair made a couple of starts, but combined for just 70 runs between them at the Gabba, with Pakistan losing early wickets in both innings.
Pakistan have a really strong and experienced middle order batting line up with Younus Khan, Misbah-Ul Haq, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed. Younus is an all time great Pakistan Test batsman, averaging 52 with 33 Test centuries, and he showed he was just starting to get back in to touch with a second innings 65 before a bizarre reverse sweep brought him undone. The Skipper had a rare double failure, however has been an exceptional rock for Pakistan since taking over the captaincy in turbulent times in 2011. At 42 years of age, his powers might be fading, however I still think he can squeeze out one or two more long innings before he calls it a day. Shafiq averages 41 from 52 Tests, and has 10 Test centuries, none better than the 137 he plundered in the 4th Innings, to nearly pull off a miracle come-from-behind victory for Pakistan. Wicket keeper Ahmed also averages 41, and made a stylish 59 n/o to go with 24 in Brisbane. With Australia's Maddinson and Wade struggling for runs, this is a clear advantage Pakistan have at this juncture. Pakistan have been bowled out 17 times this year in Test Cricket and one of those times it has been for less than 205, which is disappointing for what is a pretty strong line up on paper. They will need to change that at the MCG with a First Innings score of over 350 usually a paramount.
Pakistan's pace attack has plenty of raw power and talent, however were patchy in Brisbane. They were asked to bowl side of the stumps for long periods in the First Innings, and while it slows the run rate, I found it a strange tactic given here bowlers can swing the ball and at decent pace. It's unusual for an attack to contain three left-arm fast bowlers, however that is exactly what Pakistan have in Mohammad Amir, Rahat Ali and Wahab Riaz. Amir and Riaz both took five wickets for the match at the Gabba, and looked very threatening when they got things right. Amir can look more dangerous when he pitches it up and gets it swinging, while Riaz has the potential to use his bouncer as a genuine wicket taking option.
In the field, at times Misbah-Ul-Haq seemed a little too preoccupied with containment rather than trying to take wickets. Pakistan went to defensive fields relatively early, and used Yasir Shah as more of a run saver than a wicket taker. Shah is a classy leg spinner, however he was a bit below his best in Brisbane often spearing the ball into leg stump and setting a few deep fields.
Verdict - I think this will be a pretty hard fought and evenly contested Test Match. I expect it to go deep into the 5 days which cane a bit of a rarity these days. I think Pakistan will be much better for the run and present a serious challenge for Australia here. I think the toss will be very important in this game, and a team that can bat first can dominate the game if they score 400+ on what is expected to be a flat MCG wicket. Pakistan need to be little more aggressive with the ball and back the likes of Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah with fields that allow them to bowl a more aggressive line. I think David Warner is primed for a century this game. I think he has been batting quite well without a big score, and with an average under 40 for the year in Test Cricket, and a poor record at the MCG, I think if he will be extra determined for a big one.