Pakistan vs Australia key match-ups: Babar vs Hazlewood, short ball vs Smith, Shaheen Shah Afridi vs everyone

What are some of the contests that could decide the outcome of the Test series?

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Josh Hazlewood continued to win the battle against Babar Azam, Australia v Pakistan, 1st Test, Brisbane, November 21, 2019

Josh Hazlewood has dominated against Babar Azam  •  Getty Images

The highly-anticipated Test series between Pakistan and Australia begins in Rawalpindi on Friday. Pakistan have had injury problems in the build-up, while Australia have not played a Test overseas since 2019. The conditions the teams will face have also been a talking point. Here's a look at some match-ups that could be key to outcome of the series

Shaheen Shah Afridi vs everyone

Hasan Ali has an injury. Haris Rauf has Covid. Shaheen Shah Afridi was vital to Pakistan's chances anyway, but that has only increased in recent days. It is remarkable to think he is still only 21. He was the leading quick bowler in Test cricket during 2021 with 47 wickets at 17.06. Australia had a brief taste of his rapid, late swing during the T20 World Cup - albeit with the white ball - when a stunning opening over removed Aaron Finch and very nearly Mitchell Marsh although they, and more specifically, Matthew Wade had the final say. In these Tests, his early duels with David Warner could be key: Afridi averages 18.34 against left handers. Warner has a phenomenal record against Pakistan (he averages 108.40) and was savage on them during the 2019-2020 series in Australia but Afridi has grown over those intervening two years. The issue for Pakistan will be that it can't be all on Afridi's shoulders.

Can the short ball work to Smith?

The last time Australia played overseas during the 2019 Ashes, Steven Smith produced one of the finest series of all time with 774 runs at 110.57. Since then, however, he has averaged 36.86 from 14 Tests with just a single century against India. Some of that has been attributed to the sickening blow he took from Jofra Archer at Lord's, although he made a double century on his return from concussion. There has certainly been a concerted approach to bowl short at the body since then - a tactic well-executed by Neil Wagner in 2019-2020 - which has also kept his scoring rate down. Since October 1, 2019, Smith has fallen 10 times to deliveries logged as short-of-a-good-length or short in ESPNcricinfo's data. However, there have been other plans that have worked well, too, including R Ashwin's approach and a heavy leg-side field set by India. Afridi has the pace to potentially trouble Smith with the short delivery, but Pakistan will have to be wary of bowling him into the ground and the likelihood of playing three quicks (more on the balance of the side below) may also limit being able to have operate in lengthy short-ball spells.

Babar Azam vs Josh Hazlewood

Babar Azam is a wonderful batter, but few have troubled him like Josh Hazlewood who has claimed him six times (the next most is three dismissals to the same bowler). It does need noting that four of those came early in Babar's career on the 2016-17 tour of Australia and on the previous tour in 2019-2020 he left a mark with a century in Brisbane and 97 in Adelaide although Hazlewood removed him twice. Australia always target the opposition captain and if Hazlewood can keep a hold over Babar it could be a major factor in the series. Although Babar has remained a consistent run-scorer in recent times, it is 11 Tests since he has scored a century. Hazlewood is not actually an incumbent in the side after missing most of the Ashes with a side strain but it would be a huge surprise if he did not return.

The approach against Nathan Lyon

One of the big decisions Australia need to make is around the balance of their attack. It would seem likely that Nathan Lyon will be lone the specialist spinner for the first Test at least and how Pakistan go about playing him could be a key feature. Although Australia now have the benefit of a five-strong attack with Cameron Green, there will likely be occasions when Pat Cummins will want to lock Lyon in from one end. Two important figures in Pakistan's batting order in this regard will be Fawad Alam and Mohammad Rizwan who are both excellent players of spin. Fawad's Test career is remarkable in many ways with an 11-year gap shortly after a century on debut and now he has five hundreds in just 15 matches. Rizwan, meanwhile, has only been dismissed once by a spinner in Test cricket.

Australia's all-round advantage

The injury to Faheem Ashraf removes one of the key match-ups, at least for the first Test, with Green and leaves Australia with a much stronger all-round option to balance their side. Pakistan have called up Iftikhar Ahmed, who has played three Tests, and the uncapped Mohammad Wasim jnr, but neither have the pedigree of Ashraf who averages 35.11 with the bat and can both chip in with wickets and take pressure off the specialist bowlers. This is Green's first international series overseas but he comes off an Ashes where his bowling came to the fore and then he found form with the bat in the latter stages.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo