Upbeat Australia seek Test series sweep

Sydney
2 Jan 2017

Being traditionally the Australian Test summer's finale, the New Year's Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) is one of the most beloved on the international cricket calendar. Perhaps it doesn't quite match Boxing Day's inimitable spectacle but, still, the SCG's grandeur coupled with strong support from locals, ensures the Test is a favourite for many cricket connoisseurs.

Unfortunately, which has become the norm, this Test is a dead rubber, after Australia conjured a miraculous victory in Melbourne over a shell-shocked Pakistan. After such a memorable finale in Brisbane and a highly competitive start to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) Test - when rain didn't interfere - it appeared a gripping series was unfolding, a rarity in the normally lacklustre contests between Australia and Pakistan.

However, in a major anti-climax, Pakistan collapsed on the final day, reviving haunting apparitions which continue to plague the eternally erratic team. It was a bitterly disappointing spiral for Pakistan, who had been so brave and bold during their impressive comeback in the series.

All it means is that another series in Australia is lost for Pakistan, exacerbated by them genuinely serving it up to the home side during long stretches. There doesn't feel much difference between the sides but, once again, Pakistan's mental resolve hasn't been up to scratch at key junctures.

After the harrowing defeat at the MCG, Misbah-ul-Haq revealed he was contemplating immediate retirement from international cricket. However, the Pakistani captain will play at the SCG, but there is a strong likelihood that this could be his swansong and, perhaps, also for the veteran batsman Younis Khan.

With that sub-plot in the backdrop, Pakistan will be desperate to send their revered leaders out in style and finally break a two-decade hoodoo in Australia. Pakistan last won a Test in Australia in 1995 but, perhaps in a good omen, it was at the SCG - which has been a fortress for Australia, who have only lost twice there ever since.

The SCG pitch, which favours spin, is one that teams from the subcontinent generally view as their best chance of a victory, but no team from Asia has won there since Pakistan's aforementioned win in 1995. During the Sheffield Shield season thus far, the SCG wicket has spun wickedly, reviving memories of the past where it turned menacingly and Australia occasionally played three spinners.

Thus, Pakistan will heavily rely on struggling legspinner Yasir Shah, who has been eviscerated during the opening two Tests, although he has not been helped by defensive fields set by Misbah. To support Yasir, Pakistan is likely to play either the uncapped 18-year-old Mohammad Asghar or Mohammad Nawaz, a left-arm spinning all-rounder who has played three Tests.

Meanwhile, a supremely confident Australian team will be looking to win their fourth consecutive Test match to continue an impressive revival since losing the opening two matches against South Africa rather embarrassingly to start the summer.

It is a chance for a series whitewash, something Australia hasn't achieved for several years, but perhaps more importantly, it is a timely chance to play on a spinning wicket ahead of the looming crux tour of India in February.

With incumbent spinner Nathan Lyon starring on the fifth day in Melbourne to confirm his position, Australia bolstered their spin stocks by naming left-armers, Stephen O'Keefe and Ashton Agar. The New South Welshman got the nod and will be keen to impress after recent problems with injuries and ill-discipline.

Perhaps Sydney doesn't quite resemble the dust bowls of the subcontinent but the turning track will provide a welcome opportunity for Australia's inexperienced batting line-up to hone their skills.

Being a dead rubber, the Test finale to a memorable summer may be a slight anti-climax but for both teams - for entirely different reasons - there is much at stake.