In a year when Australian cricket’s cultural habits and instincts have been challenged so publicly, it seems fitting that the national team’s first Test assignment since the Newlands ball-tampering scandal involves a task requiring plenty of self-denial.
Most of the best Australian teams have been known for forcing the pace, but the captain Tim Paine was clear on the team’s departure for the UAE that success in the forthcoming series would be about attrition, not aggression.
Just as Paine, the new coach Justin Langer and the rest of the touring party have had to ponder the image of the team and the way they conduct themselves against opponents who have stored up plenty of ill-feeling about Australia for some time – just ask Moeen Ali – so must they now work towards methodical, patient and consistent cricket in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, built on the bedrock of spending many painstaking hours at the batting crease.
“I think it is going to be hard work over there, no doubt. I think games traditionally in the UAE take a long time so we are going to have to be really patient,” Paine said in Brisbane. “We have spoken about partnerships and patience and pressure, which is going to be a real key over there. So, games that sort of drag along for three or four days and it can happen really quickly on day five. So, it is about having your team in a position to strike late in the game.
“We know that traditionally they’re really long, low-scoring days and it takes time to score your runs and you’ve just got to grind it out. So we’re going over there with that at the front of our minds, we’re going to have to play really hard, tough cricket, particularly from a batting side and then in the heat over there for our bowlers the same thing, it’s going to be about patience, try to wear them down and be in a position late in the game where we can make a move and win.”
These words could have been lifted almost verbatim from a Ricky Ponting column for ESPNcricinfo in 2014, after the team led by Michael Clarke was trounced 2-0 by Pakistan on their last UAE visit. Paine’s team, shorn of Steve Smith and David Warner by suspension and Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood by injury, will need to perform with a great deal of collective unity in order to prosper against a team that triumphed over Australia in the recent Twenty20 triangular series in Zimbabwe. Some cues for possible success can be taken from the narrow defeat of Smith’s team on the 2017 India tour.
Paine pointed to the role of Mitchell Starc, himself recently recovered from a foot stress injury, as a critical exemplar of the way the Australians would need to be “clever” in dealing with Pakistan, hard, slow pitches and high temperatures. “We have to be really careful with all our quicks over there, it is going to be over 40 degrees and really high humidity,” he said.
“So, we are going to have to be clever about how we use our bowlers – Starcy in particular who we know is a strike weapon. So, I expect him to be bowling short spells and as fast as he can. Really exciting to have him back, he’s clearly our spearhead so it’s going to be great to have his pace back, also his experience, and over in those conditions I think his batting can be really valuable as well with lower-order runs. We’re sure Starcy will have a really big series and if he does it’ll go a long way to winning it for us.
“Obviously we’re missing a few important players, but we’ve spoken about it as a group before we went to England and it’s a great opportunity for new players to step up. Looking forward to getting the Test group back together and playing some good, hard cricket. Probably the silver lining of what’s happened is we’re going to see some really good young cricketers coming through and the guys we’ve picked we know have got some real talent and it’ll be great to see them on the international stage.”
As for the team’s on-field conduct and image, Paine suggested a players’ charter, the crux of a team review helmed by the former opening batsman Rick McCosker, was close to completion. He also indicated that he would be eager to reprise a pre-match shared handshakes ritual between the two competing teams as a gesture of goodwill, something he first used in the final Test of the South Africa series at the Wanderers.
“Yeah potentially, if they want to. I think it is a nice way to start a series, it is a good show of sportsmanship but by no means are we going to be taking it easy,” Paine said. “We are going there to win, and to play the way that Australian cricket teams are known for playing, which is really hard. It’s going to be about our actions as a team, not what we talk about.
“I think the Australian way has always been to play hard but to play fair and that will be no different this series. There are always a lot of eyes on the Australian cricket team wherever we play so that is going to be no different. This team is really, really clear on what is expected and what the standards are of the Australian cricket team and we’ll uphold them.”