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Match Analysis

Pakistan highlights reel cannot deceive in Test cricket

For all the instances in which Pakistan's cricketers have brought crowds to their feet, they have not added up to much

Babar Azam shows his frustration after falling in the second innings, Australia v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Adelaide, December 1, 2019

Babar Azam shows his frustration after falling in the second innings  •  AFP

"What I like about experience is that it is such an honest thing…You may have deceived yourself, but experience is not trying to deceive you."
That line, from CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy, might just as easily have swapped "experience" for "Test cricket". At numerous moments across this series, it has been possible to enjoy the individual skills of numerous members of Pakistan's team, even to the point of thinking that the tourists have provided at least a 50/50 share of the instances that we will remember best.
An unofficial (and unscientific) ledger follows.
Australia: 1) Pat Cummins working over Shan Masood to start Pakistan's first day Gabba collapse, 2) David Warner's hundred in partnership with Joe Burns, 3) Marnus Labuschagne's breakthrough century, 4) Warner's Adelaide Oval record 335 and Tim Paine's dramatic declaration, 5) Mitchell Starc's incisive 6 for 66.
Pakistan: 1) Naseem Shah's speedy entry to Test cricket at 16 years old, 2) Yasir Shah dismissing Steven Smith for the seventh time and letting the world know all about it at the Gabba, 3) Babar Azam's superlative second innings century with help from Mohammad Rizwan, 4) Babar's sweetly struck 97 in Adelaide, earning a standing ovation from a crowd who know quality when they see it, 5) Yasir's delightfully unexpected century, with the second lowest average of all Test batsmen to do so.
Yet for all the instances in which Pakistan's cricketers have brought crowds to their feet, lit up social media or provided highlights that will be replayed on pay TV packages for years to come, they have not added up to much in terms of the series as a whole.
With two days remaining, Australia require just seven more wickets to wrap up an entirely comprehensive 2-0 sweep, worth 120 precious World Test Championship points and contributing to the impression that, led by Tim Paine and Justin Langer with Warner and Smith back on board, they are building into a combination that can be a match for just about anyone. Pakistan have, if anything, been left looking even further away from being competitive in a series down under than they were at the end of their previous visit in 2017, having replaced that tour's coach Mickey Arthur with its captain Misbah-ul-Haq.
Numerous members of the touring party would do well, in fact, to pay heed to the long and multi-dimensional tale of Mitchell Starc, who with 14 wickets in the series thus far appears to have, at long last, found the balance between the natural attributes that have long made him a veritable highlights package of exploding stumps and flying edges, and the more sober, consistent values of boring old line and length. It is in this balance that Starc has found, and Pakistan can still find, success.
For when Starc said his focus for this series was "just run in and bowl fast" - a similar albeit blunter message is worn on his wrist every day he goes out to bowl - it was actually devised as a balancer to ensure he does not let himself be weighed down with all the advice about consistency and precise lengths that helped chisel him into a far more disciplined red ball prospect during this year's Ashes tour of England. So too was an adjusted load up before delivery that has seen him line the ball up alongside his eyes rather than whipping it up and back from far higher. The New South Wales bowling coach, Andre Adams, has been Starc's chosen confidante for much of this work.
"I tinkered with it in the one training session between the first and second Shield game and had a training session at the SCG before the Drummoyne game and just felt like things weren't happening quickly enough or in the right positions through the Gabba Shield game. I just felt like the changes put me in a position earlier to get myself in better positions and be quite snappy at the crease. It wasn't a very big change but just got me in better positions earlier to do what I wanted to do and it seems to be more consistent as well.
"I think that how I bowled in the Gabba game was probably a result of that," Starc said of the England tour. "I felt like things were going slowly, I was more focused on trying to be consistent rather than still run in and bowl at a good pace. So finding a happy medium there was probably what resulted in now the little technical change to still get myself in positions where I'm more compact and less can go wrong in terms of the lines and lengths I want to bowl, which is what we spoke a fair bit about in the UK tour.
"The bowling group was heavily focused on economy rates and hitting a really good length for a long amount of time, which the guys did phenomenally well throughout the Ashes. So something I worked a fair bit on in the nets over there, but coming back to Australia, in that first game perhaps dropped a little bit of pace being too heavily on that, so now it is a bit of that focus along with still trying to have a bit of air speed focus as well."
So there is a level of complexity and years-long thinking and experimenting that has brought Starc to this point, and so too Australia. These are the learnings, and by extension the performances, that have crushed Pakistan in between those highlights, even if they are far less likely to make it onto the compilation tapes destined for television, board websites and, if allowed by commercial forces, YouTube.
"Our batting has been phenomenal the first two Test matches to have the huge partnerships we've had, the big individual scores," Starc said. "We talk a lot about having big first innings totals and the guys have really responded well to that, and have done that, Davey's 300, Marnus back to back 150s, given the bowlers days off by batting for long periods of time. Our consistency with the bat has been really positive.
"I think we've been fantastic in bowling partnerships as well, Pakistan have had a couple of really positive innings individually but haven't had that consistency to either wear us down or maintain the pressure for long enough to break us open and we've been ahead of the game throughout the series. Maybe lack of experience [for Pakistan]. I guess for the three of us quicks, we've played a fair amount of cricket together and we've all played a few Test matches at the venue, all played pink ball cricket here as well.
"That experience might come into it, Pakistan are a young attack, when you throw in a debutant and Shaheen's only 19 or 20 as well. Without analysing it too much, we've just hit the right areas for longer I think. It comes back to our consistency, we've probably reassessed after the first session at the Gabba where we were a fraction short, and wanted the Pakistan batsmen to drive a bit more and hit our really good balls for four. So our consistency's been notably better than the Pakistan bowlers throughout the series I think."
It says something when Starc, arguably Australia's most mercurial, even enigmatic, fast bowler of recent years has become an exemplar of the tried, true and trusted. Something not only for Australia to reflect upon with satisfaction whenever they round off the remainder of this match, but also for Pakistan to ponder as they are left with a handful of bright, shining memories amid the overall ruin of this tour. Test cricket, like experience itself, remains a most honest game, unless its participants choose to deceive themselves.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig