Sydney’s Test match has the duality of starting the year but ending the series. Pakistan’s captain Misbah-ul-Haq has certainly been thinking about ending at the start of 2017, even if he’s now retreated somewhat from the openness he offered in the aftermath of the Melbourne defeat. By contrast, Australia would like the end of this series to be the start of the next assignment, as the squad selection for the SCG made patently clear. That being said, the captain Steven Smith isn’t exactly eager to place both eyes on the looming tour of India and its myriad challenges: a clean sweep of Pakistan, having spent much of the past six months pondering defeats rather than victories, would be a welcome outcome.
Having spent four Test matches without an allrounder, Australia have returned to Darren Lehmann’s favoured formula, this time with Hilton Cartwright on debut rather than Mitchell Marsh on spec. Cartwright is a batsman first and a bowler later; the question remains whether Smith will fully trust someone who didn’t bowl a single ball at the SCG when he visited for a Sheffield Shield fixture earlier in the season. Instead the match was dominated by spinners – Steve O’Keefe, Will Somerville and Ashton Agar shared no fewer than 27 wickets between them. Agar has not been included in the XI, but can feel relatively secure of his place on the plane to India. Smith and Lehmann will be looking for signs that two quicks, two spinners and Cartwright can do a strong job this week. Also that neither Mitchell Starc nor Josh Hazlewood fall prey to overwork.
Pakistan arrived in Australia with plenty of optimism, and had it somewhat bolstered by a resilient display in Brisbane. But the collapse of the team on the final day in Melbourne, after rain had made the draw by far the more likely result, raised plenty of old questions about temperament and consistency. A matter of months after ascending to No. 1 in the world, the visitors are now on the cusp of their worst ever losing streak in Tests. Whether or not Misbah chooses to finish up, he will be aware of the need to finish this series, at least, on a better note than that.
No one can doubt Steve O’Keefe’s ability as a first-class performer for New South Wales. Nor can they question the way he bowled for Australia in each of his past two Test matches, one at the SCG last January and then one in Sri Lanka in July. But the fact that it has been close to six months since O’Keefe last played is attributable to a poor injury record, namely with calf and hamstring problems. Durability is a key element to any spin bowler’s career – a large reason for Nathan Lyon’s ability to keep bouncing back from questions about his future is that he is invariably fit and ready to go. O’Keefe offers consistency and craftiness that Smith in particular wants to utilise. But to do so he needs to see the bowler stay on the park.
It has been more than 21 years since Mushtaq Ahmed fashioned Pakistan a victory over Australia at the SCG with outstanding wristspin, and Yasir Shah will be aspiring to do the same. For much of this series he has been a curiously muted presence, taking a largely defensive leg-stump line with fields to match. That this appears to have been by design is a pity for Yasir, given his ability to prosper in a variety of conditions in the past. At Sydney he can expect a more attacking commission, and will want to make the most of it.
Hilton Cartwright is in for his debut and Steve O’Keefe for his first Test since the Sri Lanka tour. They have been included at the expense of Nic Maddinson and Jackson Bird.
Australia 1 Matt Renshaw, 2 David Warner, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Peter Handscomb, 6 Hilton Cartwright, 7 Matthew Wade (wk), 8 Steve O’Keefe, 9 Mitchell Starc, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon
One of Imran Khan or Rahat Ali can be expected to return in place of Sohail Khan. A second spinner may also be in the mix.
Pakistan (probable) 1 Sami Aslam, 2 Azhar Ali, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Asad Shafiq, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 8 Wahab Riaz, 9 Yasir Shah, 10 Mohammad Amir, 11 Rahat Ali/Imran Khan
Pitch and conditions
Sydney’s pitch has been spinning noticeably more this season, necessitating twin spin for the hosts. The weather forecast for the match features some rain, but less than Melbourne saw.
Stats and trivia
Pakistan’s most recent Test victory in Australia came at the SCG in 1995.
Australia’s captain Steven Smith is playing his 50th Test, having made his debut against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010
The inclusions of Cartwright and O’Keefe mean Australia have four overseas-born players in thier XI for the first time since their very first Test series in 1876-77 when they fielded five or more
Pakistan have never lost six Test matches in a row
“You want to play well every game you play for Australia. We can’t think too far ahead. The conditions are completely different. It’s a different kind of spin that you get out here than you do in India. We’re just focused on this Test match at this stage and hopefully we can have a clean sweep.”
Australia’s captain Steven Smith doesn’t want to think too much beyond the SCG