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Australia, depleted Pakistan prepare for dive into the unknown

Overcast conditions, no useful recent ground information among challenges for both sides

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
There remains little clarity, just over 12 hours out from the start of the first Test against Australia, of the combination Pakistan will field. The absence of Faheem Ashraf appears to have plunged Pakistan into something of a selection dilemma, with uncertainty over whether to field an extra bowler or Iftikhar Ahmed at No.7.
The conditions have thrown in an added selectorial challenge. It rained in Rawalpindi for much of Thursday, necessitating both teams to cancel training sessions. Overcast conditions are expected for at least three of the five Test days, which invariably raises the stakes for getting the bowling combination right.
The Rawalpindi surface has long been seen as the friendliest for fast bowling, though the exact nature of this specific surface is something of a well-kept secret. The strip has been under wraps for much of the build-up, though those in the know insist seam bowling invariably remains a potent force in Rawalpindi on the first day.
Iftikhar's presence should mean there's only room for one of Nauman Ali or Sajid Khan. Both spinners' lack of experience - they have 11 Tests and 37 wickets between them - are dwarfed by Nathan Lyon's, whose 415 wickets in 105 Tests mean he's perfectly at home operating as the sole spinner for the visitors. Should the game extend deep into the fourth innings and fifth day, it remains to be seen how well Sajid or Nauman handle the pressure of functioning as the only specialist spinner.
There remains virtually no useful recent ground information to draw on for parallels. There have been just three Tests at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium since 2004, each of them taking place between December and February, when conditions are considerably cooler. The Test against South Africa last year saw the visitors' pace attack trouble Pakistan's top order with the new ball, reducing Pakistan to 22 for 3 inside 15 overs. Australia's potent pace-bowling attack of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and captain Pat Cummins are likely to fancy a bowl on the first morning, making the toss especially vital since the Pindi pitch has been known to flatten out over the next two days.
Pakistan's recent top-order woes have been exacerbated by the absence of their leading run-scorer last year Abid Ali. Shan Masood, Imam-ul-Haq and Abdullah Shafique are jostling for position to open, with Imam and Shafique believed to be leading the race to be named in the starting line-up.
As such, the first Test represents something of a dive into the unknown, almost as much for the hosts as it is for the visitors. Pindi's accommodating nature towards fast bowling, and the hosts' injury and Covid-19 issues, means this game represents a tantalising possibility for Australia to get off to an impressive start to the tour.
However, if there's one visiting side there should theoretically be little to fear from in Asia, it is Australia, whose record in Asia has been dismal over the last 15 years. They have won just three Tests - one each in Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh over this time, losing 17. Reversing that trend would be a significant departure from the norm for Cummins and co, though the particular set of circumstances in the lead-up to the Test mean there might perhaps scarcely be a better opportunity.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000