Anxiety changes hands as Pakistan strangled

Pressure, doubt and uncertainty can do remarkable things to a cricket team and the scoreboard illustrating their fortunes. In Perth a little more than a week ago, Pakistan batted with assurance and then bowled with suffocating precision against an Australia A side that crumbled under the weight of their own expectations, as they were thrust into a "Hunger Games" style selection trial in front of the selectors Trevor Hohns and Justin Langer.

In Brisbane, however, it was Pakistan's turn to feel the sense of suffocation, constraining them from the construction of a truly substantial first innings as the top six - save for the admirable Asad Shafiq - was pressed and pressed until they cracked, losing four wickets for three runs in the hour after lunch at the Gabba.

In both cases, the bowlers delivered admirable spells that, in the case of Australia, featured more than three hours of sustained pressure to eventually force an implosion. But there was also a cost: for Australia A batsmen, a Test place; for Pakistan, possibly, a Test match.

Composure and presence of mind are, of course, the qualities that will aid most players good enough for first-class cricket to graduate to Tests. In the west, these were on display from Babar Azam and Shafiq on day one, as they sculpted a first innings brimful of promise for the tourists after a wretched Twenty20 series. Well though Australia A's pacemen bowled, they could not keep up the tight lines required all day, as Babar and Shafiq gradually took control.

Their calm, unaffacted air at the crease had notably impressed Pakistan's coach Misbah-ul-Haq, who spoke boldly about how this tour would be a chance for Babar, in particular, to graduate to the company of the very best of batsmen. "It was a very difficult pitch for our three-day game and they bowled very well," he had said.

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"We were playing pretty much the top four bowlers from Australia A. Babar Azam did both the things there - he punished the poor deliveries and respected the bowlers when it was required. He batted with a lot of maturity there. It's not just aggression, aggression and aggression, he has a very balanced approach. He puts the short balls away and even respects the good deliveries whenever he had to. He is ready to play that sort of a long innings in Tests."

For the Australian batsmen in Perth, the Test top six members Joe Burns and Travis Head among them, there was too much anxiety present to allow for that sort of calm clarity of thought and action. Wickets fell in a rush, to pace and spin, leaving Hohns and Langer to consider earlier displays in their thinking while also pondering how a constructive environment might be fostered for the chosen ones. Will Pucovski's decision to absent himself from selection for Brisbane due to mental health concerns part of a separate story for the young Victorian, but events around him cannot possibly have helped.

Australia's captain Tim Paine, though, had been swift to argue, forcefully, that Brisbane would be a different scenario. The pace attack that had helped Australia retain the urn in England, clearer bowling plans, a far more settled batting line-up and an intimidating record for the hosts at the Gabba all aided his view of the world. When the Australians got to Brisbane they were the owner occupiers, irrespective of whether they had been taught a lesson or two by the Pakistanis in Perth.

To further underline the point, this was Pakistan's first day of Test cricket since mid-January, and their first match of the World Test Championship. They were, in every sense, coming from a long way back against an Australian side hardened by the Ashes. When Azhar Ali won the toss and batted, it was with as much hope as expectation. The Australians, meanwhile, looked to be filled with eagerness but not uncertainty: they have been this way before, and recently.

It all meant that, even as Azhar and Shan Masood got the visitors off to the best possible start, a wicket-free first session as they successfully blunted Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins with the new ball, there was still an anxiousness to Pakistan and a calm confidence to Australia. Rather than reverting from plan A to B or C, Paine and his bowlers made micro-adjustments, a little fuller, a little straighter, and all the time ratcheting up the pressure.

So when Masood edged into the gap where third slip should have been shortly after lunch, Cummins did not lose his composure and resort to anything wild. Instead he pushed harder still, and coaxed out another mistake, this time to be caught by Steven Smith. Suddenly the veneer of Pakistani calm was shattered, as Azhar succumbed to Hazlewood, and a skittish Haris Sohail gifted an outside edge to Starc. Babar walked out with work to do, but amid a keen and alert bowling attack.

That he lasted only four balls before wafting and edging behind will be a source of frustration to Misbah, Azhar and Babar himself, but it was also a vindication of the Australian sense that this was the real thing for all players on both sides, rather than a selection trial that affected some individuals more than others. Three short balls corralling Babar, then one fuller one tempting the drive, were a cheap price for the most sought-after Pakistani wicket on this tour, yet also the reward for near enough to three hours of investment by the Australian pacemen.

Their rewards came a little more slowly thereafter as Shafiq offered a sensible rearguard and Naseem Shah some hearty entertainment against the second new ball. In this, there was evidence of how close Masood and Azhar had come to establishing a definitive bridgehead as much as anything else. By stumps, though, Pakistan had been bowled out, their 10 wickets lost for 165 after the initial union worth 75.

Where Australia A had cracked in Perth, a different story had been told on the other side of the country. And no words rang truer than Paine's: "I saw that Pakistan are smelling blood in the water or whatever they said. What happened in Perth has got nothing to do with what is going to happen at the Gabba."