Khawaja fights; Pakistan need five wickets in final session

Brief Scores:

Day-5 tea:

Australia 202 and 289 for 5 (Khawaja 122 n.o., Head 72) need another 173 runs to beat Pakistan (482 and 181 for 6 dec.)

Usman Khawaja became just the fifth Australian to score a hundred in the fourth innings of a Test in Asia, as the visiting team inched towards what would be a miraculous draw. Set the near-insurmountable task of surviving the final 137 overs of the Test against Pakistan’s cadre of spinners on a Dubai surface, Australia now find themselves just 31 overs away from pulling off the feat, with half their wickets still intact.

The first hour after lunch belonged to Pakistan, and there was a sense a collapse would follow as soon as Travis Head was trapped in front by Mohammad Hafeez in just the second over after the resumption. Marnus Labuschagne never appeared set against the spinners, as Yasir began to look more potent than he has at any point in the match. He finally got his first wicket when the debutant went back to a delivery that went straight on, and was trapped plumb in front of middle.

Tim Paine, too, seemed particularly vulnerable for the first half hour after arriving, never quite sure of his footwork, or of balls to leave. But some of Khawaja’s confidence, which grows as the day progresses, rubbed off on his captain. As Paine began to settle down, Pakistan found themselves having to break down the third significant partnership of the innings, with time running out.

For the first time in the match, the script Pakistan appear to have templated every time they play in the UAE isn’t quite going according to plan. Events this morning would normally have been viewed as a formality that confirmed their ascendancy in the series, but Khawaja and Head showed audacious disregard for the history books, digging in and keeping Pakistan wicketless all session.

The pair had a conducive platform to build on; their partnership had aggregated 61 last evening by stumps. They continued in that vein, playing the spinners without any fear, seemingly free of the pressure that would have come with knowing that this partnership would be key. Khawaja continued to employ the reverse sweep faultlessly against Yasir Shah, negating the rough from around the wicket. Head, on the other hand, was more conventional, relying on footwork. Time and again, he came down to the pitch of the ball and guided it through the onside. At other times, he went back deep in his crease, playing late enough to avoid being tricked by the spinners, or any demons that might have suddenly awoken the pitch.

The pitch itself hasn’t quite developed into the minefield it had threatened to become on the third evening; it seems solid enough to keep batsmen fearless. While the spinners will have been disappointed at the lack of sharp spin they are used to seeing on final-day pitches, they might still have had a wicket early in the day. Head missed a sweep off Yasir, as the ball cannoned into his pads. It wasn’t spinning much, and while the umpire adjudged it not out, it seemed extremely close. Pakistan, on their last review, chose not to use it, but replays showed that the ball had pitched in line and was hitting middle stump halfway up. It might be the one misjudgement that brings all their efforts over the past four days to nought.

It isn’t especially flattering for a bowling attack to say a fast bowler was their best on the final morning of a Test in Asia, but, once more, Mohammad Abbas looked likeliest to do damage. A compelling personal battle with Khawaja halfway through the session at times looked destined to end in a wicket, but the batsman had the rub of the green on a number of occasions. The only bowler that troubled an otherwise unflappable Khawaja, Abbas kept finding his outside edge. When the opener began to walk out of his crease to disrupt Abbas, Sarfraz Ahmed stood up to the stumps, and Khawaja looked even more troubled. It was one chapter of a battle you suspect isn’t quite done yet.

But for now, the game is beginning to slip away from Pakistan. It has taken a Herculean effort from Khawaja and his teammates to take them to the cusp of a draw. They aren’t quite over the line yet, but a Pakistan victory is finally beginning to look like it’s slipping away.