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Topsy-turvy Pakistan at the MCG

Well, this is a turn up. Though, given 2016 is the year everything that has not died has been turned on its head, it is only apt we should enter the last Test this way round. This way round being, Pakistan talking all week of the confidence they took from Brisbane, and the confidence with which they approach among the most hallowed venues in cricket, on one of the game's most hallowed dates.

If there is a player or official in the squad who is anything south of that, then he has not shown himself publicly at least. Misbah-ul-Haq doesn't count; he could win the lottery and we would never guess. Steve Rixon, the fielding coach, has been so emboldened as to go on radio and talk about Steven Smith's vulnerabilities as captain as well as the panic he saw in Australia's dressing room. The scenes, eh? Has a failed run-chase ever lifted a side that failed quite like this?

To be fair to Pakistan, all week, in training at least, they have walked that talk. They have practised hard but they have done so with vibrancy and spirit. The japery of Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Amir and Sarfraz Ahmed, in particular, has established the mood - or, a better Urdu capturing, mahol - as much as Misbah or Younis Khan's paternalistic focus.

The fast bowlers have sweated it out and if Amir's right knee and thigh has bothered him a touch at the start of training sessions, by their end he has been gliding around. The batsmen, meanwhile, have gotten down to the grim business of Test batting. The marble slab has seen heavy use and Misbah has spent longer than most at the other end of it. According to Grant Flower, Younis has netted better than he has for some time. And Yasir Shah has been around, turning deliveries more than any he did at the Gabba, to the obligatory chorus of 'oohs', 'aahs' and 'ai hais' from the support staff.

It is, to be honest, all a little bit unnerving. This is not how Pakistan sides are meant to be in Australia, least of all after a first-Test loss. It is certainly not how it was the last time Pakistan were here, seven years ago. Then, under the second of what would be five captains in a year, they were a collection of cricketers - not an ostensibly fractious one, but with little binding them together. Misbah was one of them.

"Because we got good confidence behind us especially after the last game, and what we have done over the years with this team, the kind of achievements we have, I think you could say, there is more self-belief at the moment," he said, ever careful not to sound like he's sniping, but clear in what he meant nonetheless.

"The guys are relaxed, confident that they can perform well here. And obviously it is a Boxing Day Test, it is an important Test and people will come in huge numbers, a lot of Pakistani fans. So looking forward to a good Test and an important one."

Perhaps what is needed is a shot, neat, of David Warner, the straightest of straight shooters, just to put things in crystal-clear perspective. "We won the game at the end of the day so, if they can take confidence out of losing... I don't know," he said on Saturday.

Australia did win at the Gabba and what's more, for much of it, Pakistan did not play that well. Forget the first-innings collapse, bad enough as it was. They dropped chances. They didn't look especially sharp in the field and struggled visibly with the size of the outfield. And, the bowling.

"Sometimes you can really get a lot of punishment here. And to get 20 wickets is always a challenge"

Misbah-ul-Haq on Australian conditions

It is Pakistan's bowling that, counter-intuitively, is of greater concern - more proof that this year the world is truly upside down. Attacks, great, good and otherwise, have come to Australia, a country for fast bowlers, and flown back deflated, overworked and mind-boggled.

Six times in Pakistan's last seven Tests in Australia, the bowlers have had an Australian innings declared on them. On their last tour, with Amir, Mohammad Asif, Umar Gul, Mohammad Sami and Danish Kaneria, Australia declared four times in three Tests.

Additionally, since the 1999-00 tour - the beginning of Pakistan's ten-Test losing streak here - there are four successful Australian chases, by ten wickets, four wickets, nine wickets and nine wickets. Dennis Lillee used to think Faisalabad was a graveyard for fast bowlers; what might Pakistani pacemen make of Australia?

In Brisbane, as at venues in England and New Zealand, the bowlers have been slow to work out what lengths to hit. It has been bothersome enough for Misbah to feel he is better-placed at mid-on or in the covers, away from the cordon, so that he can be in constant communication with his bowlers.

"We are hoping they can adapt," he said. "It's always difficult, which is what I said before the tour that it isn't only a challenge for the batsmen, it is for bowlers. Whoever comes here, especially Asian teams, the conditions are totally different and sometimes it can get very flat.

"You need to adjust to those conditions as bowlers, otherwise you're leaking too many runs, giving away too many boundaries. You need to be very precise in line and length because of the true bounce and pace [in these wickets]. Sometimes you can really get a lot of punishment here. And to get 20 wickets is always a challenge. I hope these guys are capable of that in any sort of condition."

The eagle-eyed Misbah-watcher among you will have noticed the use of the word 'hope' twice there. It may or may not have been deliberate but it is revealing of Misbah the bowling captain. As one allergic to leaking runs, the nature of Australian pitches, their batsmen and their boundary-hitting ways, as well as the inconsistencies of his own pace attack, will be a perennial frown on Misbah's brow.

Perhaps the composition changes. Nobody has trained with greater gusto than Imran Khan this week, whose back-of-length ways - as well as the ability to reverse - could prove useful. Mickey Arthur has had plenty of interaction with him as well, though his publicly aired worries that Imran lacks the pace for Australian conditions could have something to do with that. Misbah does think he can do well here.

The other natural worry might be about Pakistan's confidence tipping over into overconfidence, a mood that has never reaped them much reward. But that is one thing about this side, and how much its key players take their cue from Misbah. There is little chance men such as Asad Shafiq or Azhar Ali will get carried away by Brisbane. It is not their DNA.

"No, I don't think there is a danger [of that]. You can see everybody is spending a lot of time in the nets, working on their basics and they don't want to leave anything behind. It is a good sign that we are confident. But at the same time we are determined and focused. Overall I am comfortable with the position we are at as individuals and as a team."

And if Misbah-ul-Haq is feeling comfortable, who are we to argue?