IIt’s no surprise that half an hour after practice ended, Steve Smith was the last man standing. Two days before Australia’s first Test match in Pakistan since 1998, training at the center wicket at Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, packed with players, saw its numbers dissipate on this spring afternoon. For a time, Smith alternated at bat with Usman Khawaja, facing left-arm orthodox Ashton Agar. Eventually, inevitably, it was just Smith and an avid baseball coach throwing an ersatz spin. Just Smith in the Aussie net, at least. On the other side of the same wicket spot, having also outlived his teammates, a couple of workers bowled against Babar Azam.
The symbolism was clear. On both sides, blow for blow, each equaled the other in terms of assiduity. The two who run the bat for their teams, the two carrying the most responsibility. Babar is a classic stylist who can play at the fast pace of modernity and has risen to the rank of team captain. He is also a metaphor for the resurrection of cricket in his country: after three years of a record far too modest for his gifts, he peeled three centuries of consecutive matches as soon as the Tests returned to Pakistan.
Smith may no longer be the force he once was, but the defining aspect of his career has been how he pushes new boundaries. Touring India in 2017, a place where Australia had been starved of success, he coached his side for three centuries, narrowly missing out on a series win after bringing it down in the final game. On tour in England in 2019, the exact same scenario played out. He’s been sorely lacking in Test cricket since then, but perhaps this tour to an all-but-new location could rekindle that spirit of adventure.
Granted, his batting obsession went nowhere. While sharing the center, Khawaja ducked under the back of the surrounding net and leaned 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 was guarding the wicket, picking up wide balls to return, making use of the slide, all tied up in his batting kit. After securing the spot for himself, he moved the stumps to the back corner of the pitch, taking guard there so the ball could land in the roughest part of the kick marks. When he skidded to knock him down, he was unfazed, refining how to play lousy if the conditions did the same.
Whether they do so remains a mystery. Local scribes in the press box suggested the general preparation was unfocused: “Everyone is training for the spin but Pindi is a pace wicket.” On recent form this is true, with 52 wickets taken per pace versus 21 per rotation in the site’s three recent games. But it’s also known as a surface that can break, and even in bright sunshine two days before the game, the pitch remained covered to protect it from the sun.
As a result, Australia coaches and captain Patrick Cummins will be largely guessing when choosing between two spinners or their standard pace attack. Agar or leg-spinner Mitchell Swepson are the options to partner with Nathan Lyon’s spin-off. Similarly, selectors might think that conditions that offer a spin can also offer a reverse swing. The Aussie fast bowling model of Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood has been favored almost every time these three have been in form, so he’s likely to be deployed 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 home team. Last time he played in Australia he was 16 working at the Gabba for the reward for firing David Warner on 154. Last time he played in Rawalpindi he was 16 and had scored a hat trick. Now he is 19 and will partner with the world’s most accomplished 21-year-old bowler, Shaheen Shah Afridi. If Pakistan want a quick third, Mohammad Wasim Jr will have to take the job with little preparation. Spinning and deep striking can be the choice, with a host of all-rounders twirling around.
For both parties, there are quite a few things to invent as they go along. Australia declined a warm-up game in favor of staying longer at a home training camp. Pakistani players prepared by playing their domestic T20 competition. Death by stroke threatens an entire demographic as you read this paragraph. But in a way, everything fits. Nobody knows how the teams will go. No one knows what the tour will bring more broadly. No one knows if we will get there. No one even knows what’s under the blanket. The only way to find out is to dive.