Australia’s coach Justin Langer took his team’s left-handed batsmen – Usman Khawaja, Shaun Marsh, Travis Head and Matt Renshaw – to the middle of the Dubai International Stadium for a debrief and discussion on how to handle a spinning pitch after the touring team were flattened by the wristy offbreaks of Bilal Asif on day three of the first Test.
In the minutes after stumps was called, Langer led the quartet to the middle for a spot of shadow batting and then an extended discussion after the wickets of Marsh, Khawaja and Head, all dismissed by Bilal, were pivotal in wasting a staunch opening stand worth 142 between Khawaja and Aaron Finch. Australia ended day three with a deficit of 325, having claimed three Pakistan wickets in the final hour of play.
Nevertheless they have an enormous task ahead to avoid defeat, on a surface that is showing increasing signs of wear and tear. Finch, who made an admirable 62 on debut in which he batted for almost four hours, was the first wicket to fall in what became a procession of 10 for 60, and accepted responsibility for failing to get through a period in which Pakistan had noticeably tightened the scoring rate in search of the breakthroughs that followed.
“They squeezed hard there for probably a 10-over period, they set some straight fields, they bowled straight with a little bit of reverse swing at one end and spin at the other,” Finch said. “It was tough going, a real grind, and credit to them. The way they finished before lunch, the 20 minutes before lunch and 20 minutes after lunch, it was some real quality bowling.
“I thought we were just about through that. As you know in the subcontinent on slow wickets like this the game flows, you can go through 40 minute periods of no runs and then the runs flow for 15 minutes, then they bring it back together, so that was my bad for getting out right then when it was probably coming towards the end of that little period, and not going on and getting through.
“I think any time you play in the subcontinent you know once you get some new batters in it can be tough to start. Pakistan get up and about when they get some wickets so it’s about identifying that and being a little more patient and calm when you first come to the crease. But they bowled exceptionally well also, Bilal on his debut was very good today.”
Marsh and Head had both tried to drive at Bilal deliveries spinning out of the rough outside the left-hander’s off stump before they were set, and Finch noted that it was extremely difficult to play attacking shots early in the innings, meaning a reliance upon and confidence in your own defence was a vital part of getting started.
“I think each individual has their own plan and I think when you come down to attack versus defence it’s still about sticking to your own strengths,” he said. “If that’s attack, calculated risks, I think you obviously play that way but you’re still most vulnerable in your first 20 or 30 balls. So coming in and trying to attack on a wicket that’s starting to spin and starting to slow up a little bit more is going to be really tough. I think it’s sticking to your own plans and just making sure you’re as well prepared as you can be.
“With two left-arm quicks in the game, I think both sides of the wicket are starting to get a bit rough. Obviously Yasir [Shah] bowled a lot around the wicket early to Ussy which looked difficult to start against. We saw then though that once he got into a good rhythm Ussy had some good plans to him. He started to get on top of him a little bit and then Yasir had to change as well. I don’t think the rough, obviously it will play a part in the game, but I don’t think it will be enough to really worry the left-handers. I think the plans they’ve got in place are going to be really solid for the second dig.”
Those plans have now been augmented by some in-game advice from Langer, himself a left-hander who struggled for a long time against spin bowling before gradually building a method that allowed him to make a century against no less a spinner than Muttiah Muralitharan in Sri Lanka in 2004.