Pakistan seek respite as Australia pick three debutants
It might not be the first time Pakistan take on Australia with one team extremely low on confidence and credibility, bruised by accusations of cheating, with several key players - including the captain - serving bans, and with integrity injured and reputation ruined. Add to that disenfranchisement among the fans at home, and a general lack of belief in the team to pull out a result through sheer force of will and a never-say-die attitude. It might be the first time, though, for that team to be Australia.
Following the ball-tampering saga in South Africa earlier this year, a much-changed Australian side prepares to take on Pakistan in a two-Test series in the UAE. It would have been a daunting enough challenge for Steven Smith, David Warner and co. (indeed it was when they visited in 2014 that Pakistan cruised to a 2-0 win), but this Tim Paine-led side is more decidedly second-favourite than Australia have ever been against Pakistan. It isn't just the fact that it's Asia, where this side has won just three out of 24 Tests over the past decade, but also the dearth of Test caps among the squad that's been sent out to the Dubai desert. In that arid, crackling heat on those dry, flat wickets, patience and experience are virtues weighed in gold. This Australia simply do not have enough players for whom one can confidently use those adjectives.
The warm-up game, which Australia dominated, can be largely set aside; Pakistan, somewhat churlishly, refused to play any frontline spinners in a bid to retain the mystery ahead of the first Test. Australia will be encouraged to see Nathan Lyon take eight wickets in the first innings there, but he will need quality back-up in the spin department if Australia are to mount a serious challenge. Jon Holland will feature, while debutant Travis Head could use his offspin to Australia's advantage. All said, three Australians - Head, Aaron Finch and Marnus Labuschagne - will make their debuts in Dubai on Sunday.
Pakistan aren't exactly oozing confidence either, though. After a poor Asia Cup campaign in the UAE, they decided to drop Mohammad Amir, who once upon a time would have been expected to be a key figure in the outcome of the Test series. They haven't played much Test cricket of late to draw too many inferences, but the long-term pattern is rather unflattering: 10 losses and six wins over the past two years have seen Pakistan undo much of the good work that peaked with an extraordinary rise to the top of the rankings. The last time they played Test cricket here, they were blanked by Sri Lanka 2-0, the first series Mickey Arthur's men lost in the UAE since relocating in 2009. It is a result that sounds especially plaintive in light of the Sri Lankan team's plight of late.
There isn't too much evidence that a corner has been turned, or even that a corner is close enough for Pakistan to have the indicator lights on.
Mohammad Hafeez was hastily recalled after a two-year absence from the Test side, and now looks certain to play with injury ruling Shadab Khan out. Yasir Shah, who along with Hafeez and Zulfiqar Babar ran rings around Australia the last time they toured, will take on an increasingly pivotal role. Offspinning allrounder Bilal Asif is set for a Test debut, too; he could hardly ask for more amenable circumstances in which to make it.
How both sides bat is significantly more unpredictable. Pakistan have the experience of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, along with the blossoming potential of Babar Azam, but with the team slightly low on confidence and form, taking on Nathan Lyon - arguably the best offspinner in the world - will stretch them to their limits. Australia's youth is at least free of all the bitter experiences their more experienced counterparts have been at the receiving end of, in this continent, for the past ten years.
Australia's selectors have wiped the slate clean, but it is the players who must script a new narrative.
In the spotlight
Babar Azam is yet to announce himself as an all-format player, and it is in the whites that he has been found wanting for Pakistan. While impeccable limited-overs numbers have sent Pakistan fans gushing about the 23-year old, a Test average of 28 does sit rather awkwardly amidst the compliments and the adulation. There doesn't appear to be a glaring technical weakness hindering him, and he did begin his career just as Pakistan entered the Test slump that they are desperate to mark an end to this winter. Getting starts seems to be a lingering issue for him; he has been dismissed for under 25 in 17 of his 25 Test innings. Those aren't the numbers befitting a batsman of Babar's calibre, and it seems inevitable they will change soon. If Australia delay that coming of age by another four innings though, they will leave Pakistan scrambling to fill a huge void.
Usman Khawaja recently spoke about his optimism as he moves into a phase in his career where he believes he is "fitter than I've ever been". With a new outlook and a clear-minded focus on what he can control, he feels he can finally enjoy playing without the pressure of what other think about him. While it sounds like a mentally healthy place to be in, Australia's new coach Justin Langer, with whom Khawaja had "really good chats" with, will be hoping it translates into runs in what will be a grinding series for batsmen. Khawaja has often been accused of scoring pretty runs rather than gritty ones, and his record in Asia does need amends made to it; he averages under 15 in eight innings. But with the opportunity to take charge at the top of the order in the absence of the towering figure of David Warner, his new outlook could help him achieve the consistency he's lacked throughout his international career.
Pakistan seem certain to field one debutant in Bilal Asif, and if the selectors take a dim view of Wahab Riaz's ordinary performance in the warm-up game, that number could rise to two. Left-arm fast bowler Mir Hamza would partner Mohammad Abbas with the new ball in that case, while Shadab's injury, plus the temptation of fielding an extra batsman, would mean Hafeez might return to the Test arena for the first time since 2016.
Pakistan (probable XI): 1 Mohammad Hafeez, 2 Imam-ul-Haq, 3, Azhar Ali, 4 Babar Azam, 5 Asad Shafiq, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 7 Haris Sohail 8 Yasir Shah, 9 Bilal Asif, 10 Wahab Riaz/Mir Hamza, 11 Mohammad Abbas
Australia's XI was officially confirmed by captain Tim Paine on Saturday. Matt Renshaw misses out and 24-year old Labuschagne has been fast-tracked to the line-up. In the fast bowling department, Michael Neser misses out despite impressing in the warm-up, with the more experienced Peter Siddle preferred.
Australia XI: 1 Aaron Finch, 2 Usman Khawaja, 3 Shaun Marsh, 4 Mitchell Marsh, 5 Travis Head, 6 Marnus Labuschagne, 7 Tim Paine (capt&wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Peter Siddle, 10 Jon Holland, 11 Nathan Lyon
Pitch and conditions
There isn't much that should surprise the teams. Temperatures are expected to be in the high thirties for the entire duration of the match, with the pitch likely to take turn from early on.
Stats and trivia
Pakistan beat Australia 2-0 in the UAE in 2014, but the only other Tests Australia played in the UAE were also against Pakistan. In 2002, Steve Waugh's men won both Tests by an innings, including a battering in Sharjah that saw Pakistan crumble for 59 and 53 inside two days.
Mitchell Starc has hit 34 sixes in Test cricket, more than any player from either side. His coach, Justin Langer, will be the only man in the vicinity with a better aggregate: 40.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000