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Australia need a new bowling method in the subcontinent

They went in with only one spinner. Their quicks couldn't put enough pressure. And some of the captaincy was questionable

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Australia got conned in Rawalpindi  •  AFP/Getty Images

Australia got conned in Rawalpindi  •  AFP/Getty Images

A presidential security detail, a golf simulator in the hotel, and a flat Rawalpindi pitch.
Welcome back to the subcontinent, Australia. The world has been waiting, and it seems not much has changed since you last played somewhere other than Australia or England in 2018.
Pat Cummins' side got conned and they shouldn't really be surprised. The lack of tour matches, some grass on the practice pitches that didn't turn, some rain the day before the opening Test and limited data suggesting the fast bowlers would enjoy Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium more than the spinners, all caused selection doubt in the lead-in.
The playing strip looked nothing like some of the fast, green monsters Australia had served up and dominated on throughout the Ashes at home. Yet they still went with their tried and trusted trio of Cummins, Josh Hazlewood, and Mitchell Starc with Nathan Lyon as the lone spinner, and Cameron Green as the allrounder.
Lyon, who wasn't required to bowl in Australia's last Test match, was on in the eighth over of the day and the image of England's batting line-up folding like a cheap suit was a distant memory as Imam-ul-Haq made a brilliant, maiden Test century and shared century stands with Azhar Ali and Abdullah Shafique as only one wicket fell for the entire day.
Coach Andrew McDonald said there were no surprises from Australia's standpoint.
"I think we knew what we were in for," he said. "Maybe the wicket offered a little less bounce and a little less pace than we would have thought at Rawalpindi. But generally speaking, we were well versed in what we were going to get."
The armchair selectors will lament, in hindsight, about not selecting a second spinner in Mitchell Swepson or Ashton Agar, after Lyon extracted spin with the new ball on a fresh pitch. But Lyon bowled 31 overs for one wicket and the spin decreased as the pitch dried out.
Australia did pick their second-best spinner in Jon Holland to partner Lyon on their last tour against Pakistan in the UAE in 2018. And the opening day of that series went to nearly the same script as this one. Today's century opening stand in Rawalpindi was the first time any team had done so against Australia since that day in Dubai. Imam was part of both, with Pakistan posting 3 for 255 on that occasion on the back of a century from Mohammad Hafeez.
A lot will be made about Australia's selection. But it fits into a grander question about their method away from home. Australia didn't bowl badly on day one. The pitch was beautiful for batting and it was a bad toss to lose, something Australia didn't experience during the Ashes. McDonald acknowledged as much in the aftermath.
"Obviously a difficult day," he said. "It was always going to be in terms of who won the toss is probably going to get (the game) on their terms for day one.
"Really impressed with the way that we controlled the tempo of the game. That was one thing that we knew that we had to do so the game didn't run away from us on day one. In terms of selection, it's like any other selection, I'd like to think that we can judge it over five days and not in isolation over one day."
While Australia didn't let Pakistan's run-rate get out of hand, they failed to really pressure them via long periods of very slow scoring. They had the opportunity to. Imam was 7 off 41 balls at one stage and 11 off 44 when Cummins made the jaw-dropping decision to bring on Travis Head in the 17th over. Not only did Head bowl 28 overs prior to Green, but he bowled 39 overs before Marnus Labuschagne, who averages 17 runs per wicket fewer in first-class cricket and whose legspin could have provided a better contrast to Lyon's offspin.
Imam smacked four boundaries in five overs, including three off Head, to get his innings going and Pakistan were away.
Australia only bowled back-to-back maidens twice in the day. In the Ashes, on the flattest surface in Sydney, Australia bowled 70 consecutive dot balls at one stage. The architects of that dry spell in Sydney were Green and Scott Boland.
Green bowled just five overs on the opening day, despite hurrying both Imam and Azhar at stages, while Boland ran the drinks, having made a living in Victoria bowling on pitches at the MCG and the Junction Oval that are the closest to this Rawalpindi strip as any in Australia.
It is here that Australia could consider a change in method on the subcontinent. The lure of Starc's reverse swing as a weapon is hard to resist but he averages 54.84 and strikes at 99.99 in eight Tests now across India, Pakistan, and the UAE. There was a hint of reverse swing late in the day but not enough to trouble Imam or Azhar.
Australia also bowled 192 full deliveries today according to ESPNCricinfo's ball-by-ball data, when good length deliveries have accounted for 69 wickets in the 10 innings played in Rawalpindi since 2019.
McDonald was full of praise for the way Imam and Azhar batted and noted his side needed to copy that batting blueprint when their turn comes. But ultimately, Australia has to find a method of taking wickets on the subcontinent if they are to add to the measly three Test victories in Asia in the last 15 years.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo