Pakistan did the impossible, now Australia must avoid repeat of history

Pakistan did the impossible, now Australia must avoid repeat of history

In the couple of weeks since his death, just as in the 30 years preceding it, people have loved talking about Shane Warne taking one for 150 on debut. The story is salutary, a moral of modesty preceding triumph, the numbers considered a chastening start to a career of statistical marvels. This week the torch was passed as another Australian leg-spinner endured a difficult debut. But if you had offered Mitchell Swepson one for 150 in the second innings of the Test in Karachi, he would have accepted with delight. Taking 1 for 150 would have won Australia the match.

In the end Swepson returned zero for 156, passing Warne’s run total in his second-last over as Pakistan held on for a draw in one of Test cricket’s most extraordinary escapes. The other number in the equation – the one wicket – he could and should have had. Twice in two balls he found the edge of Babar Azam’s bat, with difficult close catches missed on both sides of the wicket. The next over he was denied a stone-dead leg-before appeal by a slender technicality. Then, with three overs left, the most straightforward chance went down – a simple drop at cover.

The first reprieves came when Pakistan’s captain had already made 161, but he would bat another 29 overs before his dismissal, and Pakistan another 41 overs to reach safety. The lbw shout was against Mohammad Rizwan, the other linchpin who finished on 105 not out. Directly in line, keeping low and hitting the stumps: so agreed the human eye and the ball-tracking data. Not the umpire, though, because Rizwan had advanced, and an umpire’s call exception relies for impact more than three metres from the stumps. Two red lights and one orange saw Rizwan survive. Had either he or Babar fallen with so long to go, Australia surely would have forced the win.

The final drop may not have changed the result: Usman Khawaja shelled Rizwan with 18 balls remaining in the match. But that would have left Australia with three overs to dismiss two more of Pakistan’s bottom three batters, who would each have been intensely nervous. It would have given the visiting team a serious chance.

In total, Swepson did not have a good match. A vital run-out in Pakistan’s first innings prompted a collapse, which he finished off with his first two Test wickets. But the trajectory didn’t continue through a fourth innings set up for him off-spinner Nathan Lyon: a lead of 506, nearly six sessions to bowl, on a pitch whose moderate wear and tear was only evident late in the game. Swepson bowled four spells on the day before, bowling too often around leg stump and being worked for runs without great risk. His start on day five was terrible, a barrage of full tosses that cost plenty.

But his second spell on the final day showed what he can do, landing a good line around middle and off stump, turning sharply at times away from the bat, skidding through at others, and creating those three opportunities. With a lead that big, Australia could accommodate his bad spells in trade for the good, which would have been enough to turn the result. It wasn’t down to Swepson that the chances were not realised.

There will be angst for Australia about the recent failures to finish off Test matches with the ball from outrageously strong positions: the losses at Headingley 2019 and Brisbane 2021, the draws at Sydney in the last two Australian summers running, and now this epic at Karachi. But for those who follow the game more than a team, these comebacks have been a thrill. Pakistan’s 443 for 7 was the sixth-largest total ever made in the fourth innings. Three of the bigger scores have come in losses, only two have come in matches saved.

Babar Azam’s contribution was even more impressive. Only six players have made double-centuries in the fourth innings of a Test. He nearly became the seventh, falling for 196. More importantly, he batted 603 minutes, an effort in the final innings only exceeded by Michael Atherton’s famous innings against South Africa back in 1995. Only Atherton and two others have faced more deliveries. A truly impossible match to save was saved, and a long-awaited series now becomes a historical throwback, coming down to the third Test match tied at 0-0 with everything riding on that last result.

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