LAHORE: Australia opener Usman Khawaja fell agonisingly short of another Test century, as a disciplined Pakistan attack claimed three late wickets on day one to wrestle back control of the series-deciding third test in Lahore.
After winning the toss elected to bat first, Australia reached stumps at a wobbly 232 for 5 with Cameron Green 20 not out and Alex Carey unbeaten on 8. Khawaja, Australia’s only centurion of the three-match series which remains deadlocked after two draws, top-scored with 91 and Steven Smith made 59 but Pakistan claimed the honours after a dominant final session.
Player of the Ashes Travis Head endured his third straight middling score of the series when he was caught behind on 26 off a gem of a delivery from 19-year-old Naseem Shah, who was the standout bowler of an unwavering attack. The recalled quick finished with 2 for 40 off 19 overs while left-armer Shaheen Shah Afridi was the early star with two wickets in an opening burst.
Green and Carey, who made a career best 93 in the second Test, survived a tricky late burst against the second new ball and will be relied upon on day two with Australia’s hopes of building a formidable first inning total hanging in the balance.
Australia had a rollercoaster of an opening day, which was bookended by wickets and sandwiched in the middle by a 138-run third-wicket partnership between Khawaja and Smith who came together in the third over after Afridi removed David Warner and Marnus Labuschagne in the space of three balls.
It appeared Khawaja and Smith, who enjoy batting together, were on course for a back breaking partnership but they were dismissed in the last session as Pakistan clawed back into the contest.
Khawaja fell for the second time in the 90s during his herculean series when he was brilliantly caught one-handed by a diving Babar Azam at slip off spinner Sajid Khan. He has scored 392 runs at 130.67 in the series although just missed adding to his trio of tons struck since being recalled in January.
Babar made amends after dropping Khawaja on 12 at slip before lunch after left-arm spinner Nauman Ali came into the attack in the 16th over. Pakistan was left further discouraged when on the next delivery a rash Smith advanced but smashed it straight back to Nauman, who spilt the return catch as the batter immediately admonished himself.
Pakistan, however, never wavered in a plucky performance in the first Test played in Lahore since 2009. They toiled manfully on a slow pitch amid stifling conditions and conjured reverse swing after lunch, while hardworking Sajid notably turned the ball late in the day.
In what should please their new bowling coach Shaun Tait, the former Australia quick, Pakistan bowled tightly throughout the day’s play in a more controlled performance than they displayed over the opening two Tests of the historic series, the first contested between the teams in Pakistan since 1998.
Naseem was an inspired selection after being recalled at the expense of allrounder Faheem Ashraf, as Pakistan beefed up their attack with five specialist bowlers. During a fiery performance in the first Test, Naseem had been erratic as he often resorted to short-pitched bowling but he was restrained here and concentrated on hitting a line and length.
Naseem executed his plans perfectly and he was rewarded after tea by trapping Smith plumb lbw for 59 with a delivery that nipped back to end the century partnership and expose Australia’s inexperienced middle-order late in the day.
Smith was crestfallen after being just seven runs short of becoming the fastest batter to 8000 Test runs. To add to his sour mood, he has failed to convert three straight half-centuries this series as Smith’s century rut continued having scored just one ton from his last 29 Test innings.
Smith had come to the crease unusually early after left-arm quick Afridi lit a fuse under the Test with a superb opening five-over burst to leave the sparse crowd in the terraces jubilant.
After such barren stretches for bowlers in this series, a red-hot Afridi struck in the third over when he trapped Warner lbw for 7 with a pearler of a delivery that cut back then two balls later, he lured Labuschagne into a loose drive to be caught behind.
After having words with the incoming batter, Afridi capped a scintillating over with a huge lbw shout first delivery to Smith but it hit him outside the line. Even though Smith survived, Australia were left stunned after Labuschagne, the No.1 ranked batter in the world, fell for his second duck in three innings, and Warner’s relatively lean series continued and he now gone 39 international innings without a century.
It was a case of missed opportunities for Australia, who were pinned down against an inspired Pakistan attack leaving this defining Test delicately poised.