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Australia choose risk as they set up potentially unforgettable finish to largely forgettable series

They have taken a gamble, hoping to land the knockout blow, when many teams might have preferred the security of an invincible position

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Never mind the sedated pitches, which refuse to show signs of awakening from their series-long slumber. Forget, for now, the quality of the spin bowling, which will require serious evaluation from both sides as they prepare for tours to Sri Lanka later this year. And, perhaps hardest of all, put to one side the increasing conviviality between both teams, which might have begun as wholesome but has begun to verge on mawkish. All that seems to matter at present is that in a series where any escape from doleful draws has felt impossible, Pat Cummins' Australia have set the series up for a grandstand finish it scarcely deserves.
Like most pitch analysis, the wisdom of a declaration is generally evaluated in hindsight, a luxury the young Australian captain did not possess when the teams stepped out for the Test series' penultimate day. Australia found themselves in pole position overnight, thanks in large part to Cummins' brilliance the previous evening, but that will have done little to provide the 28-year old with any peace of mind.
Cummins had to ensure he was giving his bowlers enough time to create ten legitimate wicket-taking opportunities; on the evidence of Australia's recent slip catching, it would probably have to be more than ten. But then again, how do you prepare a target for a side that, just a week ago, kept you out for 171.4 overs, notching up 443 for 7 after surviving nearly two full days, while at the same time ensuring all the hard work of the 13 days doesn't go to waste?
Elite athletes may insist they stay in the moment, concentrating only on what's ahead, but it's difficult to imagine the baggage of past experiences doesn't weigh them down. It isn't just Karachi that saw Australia fail to snatch victory from a position where they made most of the running. Just two months ago, in what was Cummins' fourth Test as skipper, Australia ended up one wicket short of inflicting defeat upon England at Sydney, having batted 68.5 overs setting a somewhat cautious target.
A year earlier, in Sydney only, 131 overs were not enough to snuff India out, setting up the epic Brisbane heist, another final day when opposition batters trumped Australia's bowlers. Even Headingley 2019, where he was at the receiving end of the winning runs, will have left an indelible mark on Cummins.
But that was the past. Here, there was a match to potentially be won, and once it became clear Pakistan couldn't run through the visitors cheaply, the onus of pacing the game fell entirely upon Cummins and Australia once more. The uncooperative pitch necessitated giving the bowlers more time, for it doesn't matter how well you bowl if you haven't enough time to get ten opposition wickets. It was a message Usman Khawaja, who racked up another unbeaten century, hammered away at in the post-day presser.
"Personally, I think we declared at the right time," Khawaja said. "I'm always of the belief that you want to leave yourself more time and not run out of time rather than trying to be too worried about them scoring the runs. They started well today but it's not easy out there. So they have to do it again for the whole 90 overs."
Pakistan might have begun cogently enough, but an Australian defeat would still require Pakistan to score at a pace they haven't come close to matching this series. Australia have been the most economical side in Test cricket since 2020, conceding at just 2.78. In this series, they have kept things even tighter, allowing just 2.73 per over. For Pakistan to chase down the 351, they will have to score the remaining 278 at over three runs an over. That's a feat they only managed once this series - on the final day of the Rawalpindi Test, whose fate had already been sealed.
"[We're] not really too worried about Pakistan chasing the total. Day five wicket, I feel like this is tougher than what Karachi was. Fingers crossed if we do everything right tomorrow we could be right in it to win this Test match"
Usman Khawaja
On the final day in Karachi last week, Pakistan managed 271. The hold the Australia bowlers have enjoyed over Pakistan's batters is unlikely to have been far from Cummins' mind when he called his batters back in with nearly a full session to go on Thursday.
"The wicket is starting to roll," Khawaja said. "Once that ball gets soft and starts reversing for us, if we can get it reversing like we did in the first innings, like Pakistan have done all game, then we're right in this contest. It's really, really hard to score against the pace bowlers. Our pace bowlers will probably bowl a little bit more tomorrow and when they do the scoreboard will automatically shut down.
"It's just going to get harder and harder. The ball is going to soften up. It's going to stay low. This is the lowest wicket I've ever played on in my life. It just felt like my pad was going to get blown off or the ball was going to go through and hit my stumps. So I think you've probably seen the easiest part of the batting up to now."
Pakistan's team selection and the implications it bore for their batting adds another layer of intrigue and nuance to Australia's early declaration. Just 24 hours earlier, Cummins had watched his side blow through Pakistan's last five wickets for four runs, and probably realised what became apparent to all watching: Pakistan don't have a lower order so much as a ragtag bunch of bowlers sent out into a gunfight armed with butter knives. If the top five can be prised out, then Pakistan, with Sajid Khan batting at No. 7, will never quite feel home and dry, no matter how close they are to the target.
Khawaja might have been dabbling in mind games, but at a time when Australia famously occupy plenty of room in Pakistani heads, his words will give the hosts plenty to think about overnight.
"[We're] not really too worried about Pakistan chasing the total," he said. "Anything is possible. But if we bowl consistently well, it's a very hard wicket to push the scoreboard forward, because as soon as you try, the wicket - there's a lot of cracks running through it. The spinners were all spinning it a fair bit. There's rough on both sides of the wicket. Day five wicket, I feel like this is tougher than what Karachi was. Fingers crossed if we do everything right tomorrow, we could be right in it to win this Test match."
Khawaja might well be signing cheques he expects his bowlers to encash, but Australia, led by a captain who appears incapable of putting a foot wrong, have somehow manufactured a potentially unforgettable finish to a largely forgettable series. Prepared to risk losing a series to give themselves a shot of winning it on the final day, Cummins has taken a gamble when many might have preferred the security of an invincible position, à la Karachi.
But if Pakistan were lulled into a false sense of security by Australia's uncharacteristic warmth, more fool them. Australia aren't here to make new friends, despite the goodwill tour this has sometimes felt like. The hostility of fast bowling comes much more naturally to the visitors than the affability of some of the theatrics. And in a series where the attritional nature has given it an old-school feel, it's perhaps fitting the knockout blow of the Benaud-Qadir Trophy will be delivered, as it used to in old school boxing fights, in the 15th round.

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