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Australia’s 15 days of pure Test cricket grind in Pakistan pay off with series win | Australia cricket team

Steve Smith snags Pakistan's captain Babar Azam in the slips.

Of course, it had to end with Pat Cummins. Two stumps dazed and blinking on the ground like the survivors of a big night out. Two arms outspread to the world. One high-wattage smile. There is no great achievement in firing a ball past Naseem Shah, a teenage No 11 who by batting ability should be classed as a No 15. The achievement was everything that came before the end of the third and deciding Test match in Lahore, everything this moment capped off.

Even before the era when Australian teams did not visit Pakistan, Australian teams did not win in Pakistan. Sure, one series in 1959 against a fledgling side from a fledgling nation. Then the 1998 series against the grain, the last visit before the current tour. Those aside, Pakistan trips went a particular way: lose the first Test in Karachi on a spinning track, move to placid surfaces, be held to two draws. Lose the series 1-0. Rinse, repeat.

Even Australia’s 1998 win followed the Pakistani model: a first-up win, this time in Rawalpindi, then two matches of stalemate. So on this long-awaited return in 2022 the Australian approach was a massive throwback. They managed to channel that old style, with 15 days of pure Test cricket grind. But this time around, the moment to take a lead did not come until the very end, deep on the fifth day of the final match. These Australians had to hold their nerve.

Luckily, Cummins has had a charmed run since his abrupt elevation to captaincy on the eve of the recent Ashes. His contributions to this success have been substantial, both as captain and as leader of the attack. There will be times ahead when his decisions are as sound and his bowling as good and things still won’t go his way, but for now he can enjoy the spoils.

Not that the series was perfect. He would have been deeply frustrated after Pakistan drew in the second Test in Karachi, and there was criticism of his choices around declarations and the follow-on. But it is absurd to look at a captain who leaves 172 overs to bowl out an opposing team and say they should have done more. Pakistan’s survival was an epochal effort, with captain Babar Azam’s 603 minutes at the crease the second-longest stand for any player in the fourth innings of a Test.

Missed catches, not tactics, were Australia’s defining problem of that second Test. Steve Smith had the same issues in the third Test, a fine slip fielder starting to look fragile. He didn’t miss anything easy, but couldn’t position himself to get more than fingertips to the chances that kept flying past to his left. Until deep into the final day, another fast chance on that inside line from Nathan Lyon’s straight break, but Smith’s left hand snared the vital wicket of Babar. Rags to riches, a Cinderella story when Australian supporters had started to worry they had a glass slipper.

Steve Smith snags Pakistan's captain Babar Azam in the slips.
Steve Smith snags Pakistan’s captain Babar Azam in the slips. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Around that defining moment and Lyon’s eventual five wickets, Australia’s win was built on pace and its measured employment. In the first innings, Cummins timed to perfection an onslaught of reverse swing from himself and Mitchell Starc, rushing through seven wickets for 20 runs in the gathering gloom. Cummins allocating an extra over to Starc and being rewarded with Babar’s wicket was key to banking a sizeable lead.

After Australia’s third-innings declaration, when Pakistan put together a serene opening partnership to finish day four with a big dent in the final target of 351, a sense of concern could well have prompted Cummins to start the fifth day with himself and Starc to try to blast a hole in the retaining wall. Instead he used all-rounder Cameron Green, whose natural length drew an edge behind from Abdullah Shafique.

Cummins himself would intervene later in the day, knocking over Fawad Alam and the vital Mohammed Rizwan within minutes of one another to set Pakistan on a sure path to defeat. He is probably the best dead-track bowler in the world, able to bash the ball into the surface in such a way that he can create a threat where none should exist, while also having the skill to exercise swing and reverse swing subtly when on offer.

As a leader, he kept his players calm through three matches of trying cricket, and playing the ultimate long game, was able to take the prize in the end. Forget a whole series: before Lahore, Australia had only even won three Test matches in Pakistan. The fact that a rare visit has now yielded an even rarer victory? It started with the captain, just as it ended with him.