Starc and Lyon snatch unlikely win

Australia 8 for 624 dec (Smith 165*, Warner 144, Khawaja 97) beat Pakistan 9 for 443 dec (Azhar 205, Sohail 65, Hazlewood 3-50) and 163 (Azhar 43, Starc 4-36, Lyon 3-33) by an innings and 18 runs

A double-century from Azhar Ali. Pakistan batting until after lunch on day three. No fewer than 141 overs lost to rain. Fifteen wickets in four days on a surface more concrete than pitch. Australia won the Boxing Day Test. Yep, really.

In a conjuring act to rival those of Sydney 2010 and Adelaide 2006, Steven Smith’s men produced a Test and series victory from seemingly nowhere. Nowhere that is, apart from Pakistan’s unrivalled propensity for either triumph or disaster, with little in between.

This, we had been told, was a sturdier Pakistan, capable of fighting a match out in the manner they did at the Gabba after a horrid start. This was also the Pakistan side that had ascended to No. 1 in the world earlier in the year. But their descent from the summit has been just as rapid as Australia’s: both sides know what it is like to lose five consecutive Tests from the moment they reached the top of the ICC’s rankings.

From the opening moments of the day, Pakistan had looked a team worried about defeat, Australia a team alert to the prospect of victory. After Smith and Mitchell Starc supercharged their scoring rate so effectively as to post the highest ever Test total in Melbourne, a pair of early wickets either side of lunch gave the hosts a glimmer.

It was exploited brilliantly by Nathan Lyon, who in the space of a single spell unseated Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq and Asad Shafiq. Under extreme pressure to hold his spot entering the final day, Lyon’s response was emphatic, but not enough to cause Smith to keep him on after the tea break: he is not the first Australian spin bowler to struggle to retain the full confidence of his captain.

That being the case, the final blows were struck by the seamers. Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird and Starc all found deliveries incisive enough to cut through the tail, much to the delight of a final day crowd that swelled the total attendance to 142,188, a figure as admirable in the rain-affected circumstances as Australia’s charge to victory.

Much of Pakistan’s early bowling and fielding had been lacklustre when placed under pressure by Smith and Starc, personified by Sohail Khan’s wretched drop of Starc at long-off. Sohail finished with three wickets but was one of four expensive bowlers, none able to contain even with the help of Misbah’s often defensive fields.

So quickly did Smith and Starc score that the home captain had the luxury of declaring before the interval, meaning the visiting openers were compelled to survive two bursts of the new ball either side of lunch.

In four overs before the interval, Pakistan lost the wicket of Sami Aslam, dragging a ball from Hazlewood onto the stumps via his body. The first over of the afternoon brought another, when Babar Azam was struck on the pad by a Starc inswinger that the umpire Ian Gould judged to be hitting leg stump – a decision the batsman’s referral showed to be marginal.

Younis scored freely enough until Lyon’s introduction, when a fraction of extra bounce saw him turn an offbreak in the air towards short leg. Peter Handscomb moved forward to claim the chance a matter of millimetres above the turf. Misbah, out of sorts with the bat all series so far, tried a sweep first ball and then repeated it to his second, the top edge well caught around the corner by Nic Maddinson.

This double left the door ajar for Australia, and it opened further when Shafiq advanced and pushed Lyon directly to Handscomb, who this time hung on after a juggle. Lyon, for so long this summer a harried figure, was now dictating terms, and his team could sense a remarkable result.

It was a surprise when Smith did not keep Lyon on when play resumed, preferring Starc from the Great Southern Stand End. Hazlewood had found a modicum of reverse-swing and his tight lines were rewarded with Azhar’s wicket, the opener’s guard finally let down after 476 deliveries across two innings. Again, Gould ruled marginally in Australia’s favour on an lbw.

That opened up an end, and after Bird surprised Mohammad Amir with a quicker delivery that was dragged onto the stumps, an exultant Starc blasted out Sarfraz Ahmed, Wahab Riaz and Yasir Shah in a fashion that would have impressed Wasim Akram.

Australian celebrations were unrestrained and it was not hard to work out why. For most of the past five days it appeared that time was getting away from both sides; in the end Australia toasted victory with the last hour to spare.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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