Paine's side anxious to start 'new era' after ball-tampering scandal while Sarfraz's men eager to forget Asia Cup woe
Pakistan v Australia: Sarfraz Ahmed and Tim Paine both target fresh starts
One thing is certain ahead of the Test series between Pakistan and Australia. The two sides will preface the first session in Dubai on Sunday with a new, Tim Paine-led ritual of handshakes before play begins, similar to what teams do in football.
Once those niceties are out of the way, though, it is anyone’s guess as to how things will play out. It is a question as to which side has more on the line over the next two weeks in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and even which side is starting from a lower point.
It is Australia’s first Test series since Steve Smith, Cameron Bancroft and David Warner were chucked out of the side for their parts in ball-tampering with the use of sandpaper, in South Africa.
Will Australia suddenly play nice? Paine, the wicketkeeper who replaced Smith as captain, certainly aspires to good values, but knows the measures on which the team will really be judged.
“There is no doubt this Test series is about winning,” Paine said, on the eve of the first Test at the Dubai International Stadium.
“We are playing international sport at the highest level, and as players we are going to be judged on how many games we have won.
“That is certainly really important. On the flip side of that, the image of the Australian cricket team is really important to me and Justin [Langer, the new coach], and the rest of our team.
“We are going to do things in a really professional and respectful manner.”
On Paine’s watch, the side has apparently already become more collegiate. Even the appointments of Paine’s deputies – Mitchell Marsh and the absent Josh Hazlewood – were brought about initially by vote among the players.
“My leadership style is more inclusive than other captains have been in the past,” Paine said.
“I come from a footy background, so I’m a big believer in the power of the team. I take the opinions of my teammates really seriously.
“We are all involved to some point in a lot of the decisions that are made. I think that is really important if you want buy in, and to get guys to play for you.”
The spirit of change is emphasised by the fact there will be three debutants in Australia’s XI in Dubai. Aaron Finch, Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne will be playing their first matches, while Jon Holland, the left-arm spinner, will be playing his third.
“What happened was unfortunate, but we have to move on,” Paine said, when asked whether it feels like a fresh start after “Sandpapergate”.
“It is a new group of players and a new coach, but we are still the Australian Test team. That hasn’t changed. I suppose it is a little bit of a new era.”
Pakistan, for their part, are in the doldrums too. This is their first “home” Test series since their proud unbeaten record in the UAE fell to Sri Lanka.
That 2-0 series cleansweep a year ago represented the whole of their home Test campaign last season.
More recently, there was the dismal display at the Asia Cup, where they were knocked out by an injury-hit Bangladesh with a place in the final against India awaiting them. And even since then, there has been the issue of Ahmed Shahzad’s ban for a doping violation.
At least history suggests Pakistan are good at moving on from whatever crisis is currently afflicting them.
The last time Australia were here in 2014, for instance, the hosts were mired in difficulties before the start, yet breezed to a series whitewash.
“Asia Cup has gone, it’s in the past, and we are not thinking about that, we are thinking about the Test series,” said Sarfraz Ahmed, whose captaincy was much criticised after that tournament.
Sarfraz did not convey the impression of a captain under pressure at his pre-match media briefing. He did initially, and erroneously, list Fakhar Zaman when naming Pakistan’s line-up for the game, but that blip was likely as much down to his fast talking as it was being overworked or under fire.
Barring anything unforeseen happening before the start of play, Fakhar will not, in fact, be debuting. Rather, Mohammed Hafeez, having been a late call-up to the squad, will open the innings alongside Imam-ul-Haq.
The fact he has been brought back into the Test side for the first time since 2016 is likely much to do with the off-spin Hafeez, who turns 38 on the second day of the second Test, can bowl.
On a pitch that will likely assist spin, Pakistan will also employ Bilal Asif, the debutant off-spinner, and the leg-spin of Yasir Shah.