Australia on guard over Pakistan’s blind side for third quarter-final

The unpredictability of Misbah-ul-Haq's men remains both their strength and weakness as they aim for a semi-final berth.

Wahab Riaz, second from left, is the highest wicket-taker for Pakistan with 14 in this tournament. Morne de Klerk / Getty Images
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Australia are not alone in the world of cricket when it comes to having never really figured Pakistan out, and it is debatable whether Pakistan have figured themselves out.

Most times Australia have not needed to. Take care of your own game, Australia have believed, and that will be more than enough to take care of Pakistan. But still, there is that itch, inaccessible, inside and at the back for their heads.

They know, or at least they can sense without quite putting a finger on it, what Pakistan can do, even to them.

Five years ago, when Pakistan last toured Australia, Ricky Ponting was talking up this itch, of the “mystery” around the visitors, acknowledging their outstanding talent and recognising their scale: one day brilliant, one day ordinary.

On Tuesday, Shane Watson was saying almost exactly the same things. Capable of “incredible cricket”, capable of “self-destruction”, a collection of “match winners” have done both, in collapsing to West Indies and soaring against South Africa.

Also read: Plots that will decide the quarter-final winner from Australia and Pakistan

The question on the day ultimately is not so much about how prepared you are, but what mood Pakistan is in, and that can be an unnerving position for any opponent.

Australia will recognise the fever that has gripped this Pakistan side currently. It is a fabled one. Down to a third string attack, having additionally lost Mohammad Irfan now for the tournament, batting like it was 1990, fielding like it was 1890, perversely not picking their best team and yet four wins in a row and right in their faces on Friday.

Just last winter, in the UAE, they swamped Australia with about as inexperienced an attack as they have ever fielded. And they are susceptible to quality fast bowling – Pakistan’s pace attack can be expensive, but they are wicket-takers.

In fact, Sarfraz Ahmed apart, Wahab Riaz, Sohail Khan, Rahat Ali and Irfan have been Pakistan’s most stirring leitmotif here. Misbah-ul-Haq’s approach to batting can keep debating societies the world over afloat, but there is no doubt in the manner in which he has handled his pace options.

Freed from an unhealthy reliance on Saeed Ajmal and spin, Misbah has channelled his pacers to attack and attack until there is nothing left. If there is to be any magic on Friday, it will come from here.

Perhaps they will mull over Yasir Shah, who will have at least the confidence of bowling so well against Australia in the Tests last winter.

But Pakistan have been loathe to make selections they deem even slightly risky.

Rationally speaking, of course, Australia should win. They are at home. They are buoyant. With the players they have, they must be considered the better ODI side.

Perhaps as a result of the schedule and one washout, which meant they played and disappeared for long periods, they still feel a little undercooked, as if their campaign has yet to properly begin.

They were awesome in beating England, but only half-awesome in doing likewise to Sri Lanka. Maybe that is just how the tournament is formatted or that Australia were expected to cruise through, but other strong sides, such as New Zealand and India, seem to have had a more substantial tournament so far.

Still, in Mitchell Starc they have the bowler of the tournament, one who has shown that the yorker is not necessarily dead but that it has just not been bowled well enough recently. The other, more celebrated Mitchell – Johnson – has not had a bad tournament but a quiet one. If both come good together, Pakistan stand little chance.

Even if they are repelled, controlling David Warner and Glenn Maxwell, who could yet make this tournament his very own, require controlling. That will not happen easily.

All good sense points to an Australia win, but that itch is not going away just yet.

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