Pakistan lost their heels in the second Test to claim victory in Karachi, ensuring that Australia must face their troubled past on the fifth day.
The odds are still very high in Australia’s favour, but with Pakistan resuming at 2-192 on the fifth day – with a 314-run win – there is still a lot of work to do for the tourists.
These are the points of discussion after the fourth day of the second Test.
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Australia’s past in focus
To chase down Test cricket’s biggest ever target, Pakistan need to score another 314 runs on five pitches while avoiding the loss of eight wickets.
The hosts have already batted 82 overs and are scoring at just 2.34 runs per over, which means they need to step up the scoring on a slower pitch to reach a possible total.
No team has ever chased more than 7-418 (West Indies vs Australia in 2003), while Pakistan’s highest successful chase is 377 against Sri Lanka in 2015.
All of this is to say that Australia are very unlikely by all measures to fail to win this Test.
And yet, it seems like an isolated possibility of the same kind.
This suspicion may not be as rooted in the logic of cricket as it is in the haunting memories of the last three years.
Australia haven’t had a great track record lately when trying to get a side out late in Tests.
This summer, England held on to a gritty draw in 102 overs with a wicket in Sydney. Even in Adelaide, where Australia needed just six wickets on the fifth day, England survived another 70 overs before finally being folded in the final session.
Earlier in the summer, India survived a five-day attack in Sydney and Brisbane, even chasing 328 to win the last.
The trend began in the Ashes in 2019 when England miraculously claimed an all-time Test victory by one wicket while chasing Australia’s target of 359 runs.
However, failing to win in Karachi would set a whole new dimension.
Did Australia miss its big chance?
Cricket is a strange game.
One day, the ball spins around the corners and Pakistan are rolled out for 148.
Next, it makes 82 for the loss of just two wickets and the ball isn’t doing much.
The only wicket Australia took was from spinner Nathan Lyon, and a Cameron Green bouncer that didn’t bounce at all.
However, there was a small window of opportunity to enter the middle order and ease the job on the fifth day, but it was not taken.
When the ball started to reverse around the 30-over mark, Pat Cummins got a healthy outside edge off Abudallah Shafiq, which went straight to Steve Smith at slips.
Smith was standing close so the opportunity came quickly, but the ball somehow got into his stomach and hit the ground.
Australia’s assistant coach Michael Di Venuto suggested that the drop was ultimately a gap between the two days.
“At that time reverse swing was starting for us, the ball was tough and yesterday when we got the breakthrough.
“It was a drop we loved taking and Steve had excellent hands, so it’s a catch he’ll take 99 out of 100.
“(Yesterday) when the ball was hard and reversing we had some breakthroughs and we were able to punch holes in them. Today they have recovered from it, the ball has become soft and it is not working that much.
If Smith had grabbed the opportunity, Australia’s fast bowlers would have got a shot at another new batsman while the ball was moving.
The batsman would likely have been Fawad Alam who was caught for a golden duck by Mitchell Starc in the first innings.
Instead, Australia were forced to push harder and effectively wait for the second new ball to start the process over again.
There were only two overs left in the day’s play and the new ball was taken, and an Australian win would partly depend on his ability to talk it out again.
Lyon needs to step up
The other key factor for Australia on day five will be their spinners, namely Nathan Lyon.
To revisit the aforementioned Australian failures in the fourth innings, Lyon’s own performance in those Tests fell short of his undeniable brilliance.
In the first Test of the 2019 Ashes, Lyon claimed a 6-49 win over England in their final innings at Edgbaston fort.
Since then, the off-spinner’s relationship with the fourth innings has become complicated.
Statistically speaking, this is his best – as you would probably expect for a spinner – with 234 wickets at 30.18.
But it is the lack of wickets scored by him in those high-profile matches that cannot be ignored.
He scored 2-114 at Headingley in 2019. He took similar figures of 2–114 in a draw at the SCG against India in January 2021, followed by 2–85 in a loss at the Gabba.
He scored 2-28 in 22 overs against England in the drawn Sydney Test two months ago.
These aren’t bad returns, but they aren’t great either. They were needed to lead Australia from the front at a time like this.
They will be asked to do the same again on Wednesday night (AEDT) as Australia look for an eight-wicket haul to claim their maiden Test win in Karachi.
Reverse swing could again play a role, but if it doesn’t materialize as on Tuesday, it will be up to the Australian spinners to finish the job.
Australia also have leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson, but it would be unfair to expect the Test debutant to lead his side to a win over the 107-Test veteran in Lyon.
espncricinfo Data analyst Gaurav Sundararaman said after the fourth day that it was time for the 34-year-old to step up.
“Tomorrow is a big day for veteran Nathan Lyon in my opinion,” he wrote. “It will be disappointing if he doesn’t perform well and lead Australia to victory,” he said.
“The pitch on day five in the subcontinent is full of runs to play for whatever spinner would want. Can he get his form back?”