Australia has pulled off one of its most remarkable Test match wins of the modern era, beating Pakistan by an innings and 18 runs in a thrilling rain-affected Boxing Day Test at the MCG.
The victory – achieved by a refreshed Australian XI which captain Steve Smith has tried to put his own mark on recently – has the potential to be remembered as a defining triumph for the current generation of Australian cricketers.
The win gave Australia an unassailable 2-0 series lead, however it did not stop the national selectors from making changes heading into the third and final Test starting on Tuesday at the SCG.
Australia will have three spin options, with Steve O’Keefe and Ashton Agar joining Nathan Lyon in the 13-man squad for the SCG.
Nic Maddinson has been dumped after struggling at No.6 in his first three Tests and seamer Chadd Sayers is also out, while uncapped allrounder Hilton Cartwright remains in the squad.
“We wanted a left-armer to go away from all their right-handers as well to give us options,” Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann said of Agar.
“He got 10 in Sydney [in the recent Sheffield Shield game]. He’s improved … and the guys have been watching him, they’ve been impressed with him.
“The hardest thing we’ve got at the moment is no Shield cricket, so you go with a bit of BBL form as well. So they’re not bowling as much as we’d like, but before that he was doing really well.
“Stephen [O’Keefe] did a really good job in Sri Lanka for us before he got injured, did a really good job for us in Sydney as well, so he knows he’s got to be fit and ready to play each and every game.”
Smith’s men won the Melbourne Test in remarkable fashion, declaring on an MCG-record 8-624 and then bowling Pakistan out for 163 in its second innings, with less than an hour remaining on day five.
Mitchell Starc led the way with 4-63 in the second innings, expertly supported by Nathan Lyon (3-33), Josh Hazlewood (2-39) and Jackson Bird (1-46).
But it was the batting of Starc (84), David Warner (144), Usman Khawaja (97) and Smith (165) that put Australia in a winning position during a Test that lost 141 overs to rain and had delays on every day except the last.
The hard-hitting quartet helped their team to a 181-run lead ahead of Pakistan’s first innings total of 9-443 (dec).
Warner’s run-a-ball 144 set the tone for Smith and Khawaja, and was almost bettered by Starc, whose 84 from 91 balls included three 4s and seven 6s, the most ever recorded by a batsman in an MCG innings.
Starc’s smashing innings coincided with the period in the match where the game got away from Pakistan, the visitors unable to clean up Australia’s tail owing to poor bowling and a sloppy effort in the field.
Up until Starc’s stunning knock an Australian win seemed unlikely, the match destined for a draw.
But that all changed after Smith declared at 12.04pm, giving the visitors a tricky 16 minutes to negotiate before lunch and 68 overs until stumps.
Pakistan started terribly when opener Sami Aslam dropped a defensive stroke on to his pads and back into the stumps in the second over off Hazlewood.
Starc made it double trouble when he trapped Babar Azam LBW with the first ball after lunch.
Struggling at 2-6, Pakistan needed veteran Younis Khan to deliver the sort of gutsy innings he had delivered so many times in his previous 113 Tests.
He hung around for a 57-run partnership with Azhar Ali before Lyon changed the game in the 20th over.
Younis prodded forward to the first ball, the extra bounce deflecting off the top of his blade into the waiting hands of Peter Handscomb at short leg.
Two balls later, Pakistan’s other mainstay, captain Misbah-ul-Haq, was following his long-time teammate back up the race after top-edging a sweep around the corner to Nic Maddinson for an easy catch that he made look very awkward.
The struggles of Younis and Misbah on this tour will raise questions about whether – at age 39 and 42 respectively – they should retire and allow Pakistan to give younger batsmen opportunities.
— Pakistani Crowd (@PakistaniCrowd) December 30, 2016
Having lost 2-0, Asad Shafiq joined Azhar in the middle, but there was to be no repeat of their 115-run partnership from the first innings as Shafiq also fell to a sharp catch courtesy of the suddenly dangerous Lyon-Handscomb duo.
Even with five wickets down at tea Pakistan would have been optimistic of holding on with its first-innings star at the crease. But the tourists’ Azhar-based hope was extinguished when he was rapped on the pads by a rampant Hazlewood shortly after the break.
Then came Mohammad Amir, who frustrated Australia with 48 runs during Pakistan’s resistance at the Gabba, but he only managed 11 off 39 balls.
Smith was named man of the match despite Azhar Ali’s 205 not out in the first innings, the highest score by a visiting batsman at the MCG.
“It’s been a pretty good day,” Smith said. “At the start of the day we thought of batting for 40 minutes and see how it goes.
“We didn’t lose any wickets so we put our foot down. Starcy’s hits gave us the opportunity to take the 180 lead and go after them. We thought if we were able to get it to reverse soon enough, we could win.
— MA Sports (@MA_Sports10) December 30, 2016
“Also Lyono bowled so well before the ball started to go. At about five down when the ball was swinging, the bowlers were fresh, that’s when it started to look clear.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to see the boys in that huddle. Pretty surreal to have now wrapped up the series.”
His opposite number, Misbah, lamented that “we could not bowl to any discipline, could not build any pressure. We lost all the momentum there.
“Full credit to the Australian batsmen … When you know there can only be a draw or a defeat, that can create lots of problems. We thought it might be easy if we could get a couple of wickets early. Anything over 100, you never know on the final day. We knew anything could happen.”
– with ABC