Australia’s Reverse-Swing Spectacle Catches Pakistan Off-Guard Under the Setting Lahore Sun
Placed at a comfortable 248/3 in the Lahore Test, Pakistan lost 7 wickets for 20 runs, slumping to 268 all out.
I am perched at one of the top-most rows of the Fazal Mahmood enclosure. They say sitting at the right corner of these stands offers you a decent vantage point to observe the action taking place in the middle. For starters, I can distinctly detect any lateral movement on the ball, both through the air and off the deck.
Pakistan have resumed sluggishly post-Tea, but there is an aura of ease surrounding their approach with Babar Azam having reached his half-century and Fawad Alam slowly laying down the platform for what the home crowd is hoping will be a long vigil. In between deliveries, I skim through my copy of Jonny Bairstow’s A Clear Blue Sky as the two Pakistan batsmen continue to nonchalantly chip away at the deficit.
Following 14 wicketless overs by Cameron Green and the spin-bowling duo, Mitchell Starc has been brought back into the attack. The tall, lanky left-armer takes only a couple of deliveries to make an impact – a good length ball that prodigiously reverse-swings into Fawad and disturbs the timberwork behind him.
‘He pushed too much forward at this, didn’t he?’ I think to myself. He had, as the replays suggest, and he wasn’t helped by the sharp nip into him either.
Australia have an opening. Mohammad Rizwan strolled out into the middle amidst a deafening reception from the Lahore crowd. Rizwan, like his predecessor, tends to push ahead of his body to balls pitching on that short-of-a-good-length area, and his head often falls across his off-stump early on in the innings. The first ball he faces is another good length delivery, swerving across the off-stump channel from around the wicket. He lunges forward and pushes it nimbly into the off-side.
There is a sense of anticipation among the Australian fielders, and why not? One more wicket here, and they are essentially into the tail with the deficit still a healthy 143 runs.
Starc continues to go round the wicket to the newcomer, and the move pays off in the third over of his spell just after the drinks break. Mind you, it’s a gem of a delivery and would have dismissed most right-handers in the world. Rizwan is on the receiving end on this occasion as he presents a forward defense to this length ball angled into him from wide of the crease. With the reverse-swing on offer, the ball straightens enough to whiz past Rizwan’s dangling bat and clatters into the off-stump.
It all happens in the blink of an eye. I see the Zings take flight behind Rizwan. The LED screens in the stadium show Rizwan’s befuddled expression as he glares at the trough and then trudges towards the pavilion. For once, the horns stop blaring, and the Gaddafi sinks into a muffled stillness.
Australia can smell blood now. Starc has stirred them back to life, and with Pakistan’s tail exposed to the reverse-swinging ball, things can still take a turn for the worse.
What follows is a procession of wickets unlike most people in the stadium have ever witnessed live. It’s like a literal portrayal of a house of cards collapsing in front of your eyes. Seeing Starc breathing fire, Pat Cummins brings himself on from the other end as if to say that they’re going to wreak two-sided havoc on the hosts.
And he strikes gold in his second over – pitches it up outside off, Sajid Khan looks to drive it on the up, but it reverses enough to jag back in, brushes his bat’s inside edge, and the death rattle goes off behind him.
Eight balls later, Cummins raps Nauman’s back-pad with a delivery hooping wildly into the left-hander. It’s stone-dead, crashing into the middle of the middle-stump as a dart hurtled into the inner red ring of the bullseye. Two balls later, he entices Hasan Ali into playing a false stroke. It seems to be shaping in with the angle, but the reverse takes it away to catch the outside edge and fly into the slips cordon. Too good for a tailender. Cummins springs up in the air in delight, and Pakistan are now reeling at 268 for 8.
I often wonder if there is any scientific evidence to suggest that Cummins has his ancestral origins in Krypton. Many believe the things he can pull off on a cricket field are very uncharacteristic to residents of Earth. Just a couple of hours earlier, he had plucked a fairly difficult return catch out of thin air. Now he’s bowled his heart out on a very unrewarding pitch and has somehow become only the fourth Australian quick to take a five-wicket haul on Pakistani soil.
People beside and in front of me have sunk back into their chairs, flabbergasted by the carnage unrolling before them. Seconds later, everyone in the stadium rises in unison to applaud the Australian captain for putting on this masterful show. A thunderous clap reverberates around the Gaddafi. If Cummins had showcased this in front of the Athenian crowds in the Panathenaic Stadium some 2,500 years ago, the public would have deemed him a literal god and had carved a sculpture out of that celebratory leap, I think to myself.
By the time Babar comes back on strike to face Starc in the next over, the sun is squinting through a small cloud cover, and the floodlights have been ignited. The trumpets and horns begin to bellow again, but it’s signaling trepidation more than anything else. An ominous doom engulfs the stadium as Babar braces to combat the menacing reverse-swing.
And he’s gone first ball. This one is angled in by Starc, and it’s quite full. Babar looks to twirl it towards long leg, but it nips back and thuds into his front pad. He’s gone for all money as Ahsan Raza raises the dreaded finger. Two balls later, Starc cleans up Naseem Shah with an out-swinging yorker.
And that’s that. In a mere flash, Pakistan have been bowled out for 268 runs. The last half an hour or so seemed like that one-sided bout where a boxer is throwing a spree of punches on their opponent after identifying a chink in their armor. Battered and bruised, the opponent is trying to fend off the assaults and stand their ground. But every hook and jab is a severe body blow, and finally, with a defining uppercut, they are knocked out and are down for the count.
‘You just witnessed a reverse-swing spectacle for the ages,’ I whisper to myself in bewilderment while walking out of the tunnel after the close of play.