It was no surprise that, half an hour after the end of training was due, Steve Smith was the last man standing. Two days before Australia’s first Test match in Pakistan since 1998, the centre-wicket practice at Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium that had been teeming with players saw their numbers dissipate through that spring afternoon. For a time Smith alternated batting with Usman Khawaja, facing Ashton Agar’s left-arm orthodox. Eventually, inevitably, it was just Smith, and one baseball-mitted coach throwing down ersatz spin. Just Smith in the Australian net, at least. On the far side of the same wicket square, having likewise outlasted his teammates, a couple of toilers bowled to Babar Azam.
The symbolism was plain. On either side, shot for shot, each matched the other for assiduousness. The two who lead the batting for their teams, the two carrying most responsibility. Babar is a classical stylist who can play at modernity’s frantic tempo, and has risen to captain the side. He is also a metaphor for cricket’s resurrection in his country: after three years of a record far too modest for his gifts, he peeled off three centuries in consecutive matches as soon as Tests returned to Pakistan.
Smith may not be the force he once was, but the defining aspect of his career has been the way he takes on new frontiers. Touring India in 2017, a place where Australia had been bereft of success, he dragged his team along with three centuries, narrowly missing a series win after taking it down to the last match. Touring England in 2019 the same scenario played out to the letter. He has been parlously short of Test cricket since then, but perhaps this tour to somewhere all but brand new could rouse that adventuring spirit again.
Certainly his batting obsessiveness has gone nowhere. While sharing the centre, Khawaja would duck under the back of the surrounding netting and lean on his bat when it was Smith’s turn to face. When it was Khawaja’s turn, Smith couldn’t bring himself to leave. He would keep wicket, gather wide balls to return them, appeal at slip, all trussed up in his batting kit. After he got the place to himself, he moved the stumps all the way over to the back leg-side corner of the pitch, taking guard there so the ball could land in the roughest part of the batting footmarks. When it skidded through to bowl him he was unperturbed, honing how to play ugly if conditions did the same.
Whether they will do that remains a mystery. Local scribes in the press box suggested the general preparation was off target: “Everyone is practising for spin but Pindi is a pace wicket.” On recent form this is true, with 52 wickets taken by pace compared to 21 by spin in the venue’s three recent matches. But it is also known as a surface that can break up, and even under bright sunshine two days before the match the pitch remained under covers to protect it from the sun.
Accordingly, Australia’s selectors and the captain Patrick Cummins will largely be guessing when they choose between two spinners or their standard pace attack. Agar or leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson are the options to partner Nathan Lyon’s off spin. Equally selectors might reason that conditions offering spin can also offer reverse swing. Australia’s fast-bowling template of Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood has been preferred almost any time those three have been fit, so it is every chance to be rolled out again.
Pakistan’s pace attack has the opposite situation: isolation for Haris Rauf, injury for Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf, and a late call-up for Naseem Shah from outside the original squad. The last time he played Australia, he was a 16-year-old toiling at the Gabba for the reward of dismissing David Warner on 154. The last time he played at Rawalpindi he was a 16-year-old taking a hat-trick. Now he’s all of 19, and will partner the most accomplished 21-year-old bowler in the world in Shaheen Shah Afridi. If Pakistan want a third quick then Mohammad Wasim Jr will have to take the job on little preparation. Spin and deep batting may be the choice, with a raft of all-rounders who twirl.
For both sides, there is a fair bit of making this up as they go along. Australia declined a warm-up match in favour of staying longer in a training camp at home. Pakistan’s players have prepared by playing their domestic T20 competition. Demise by apoplexy threatens an entire demographic on reading this paragraph. But in a way, it all fits. Nobody knows how the teams will go. Nobody knows what the tour more broadly will bring. Nobody knows if we’ll get all the way through it. Nobody even knows what is under the cover. The only way to find out is to plunge in.