You had to imagine it in the first place to believe it, but that is precisely the kind of foresight Steve Smith brought to the MCG today in conjuring a dramatic Australian win in the second Test. It was to the credit of the Australian captain that a day of cricket which initially promised little provided such riches.
The statistical record of this game will reflect something far less enticing than the madcap scenes of the final day, where Australia had an innings in hand but competed against the clock as much as their brittle opponents, finally sealing victory as shadows covered the arena in the final hour of play.
Smith had a notable co-conspirator today in the form of Mitchell Starc, who started and finished his side's remarkable comeback. Any memories of the paceman's lethargic opening four days in this game will be quickly forgotten. Not even Keith Miller could have dominated in the two primary disciplines of the game the way he did today for 84 runs and four wickets. Yasir Shah was the final Pakistani batsman to depart amid chaotic celebrations when he spooned Starc to Jackson Bird at mid-on.
At various points Pakistan looked capable of hanging on in this game. There were 18 overs remaining in the day and 28 runs to play with when Sarfraz Ahmed stood undefeated on 43, looking good to establish a small, potentially game-saving lead for his side. But again it was Starc who snaked one through the defences of Pakistan's only remaining hope. Wahab Riaz followed for a five-ball duck – also bowled by the left-arm quick – before the last rites were enacted.
Friday’s play began with few competitive prospects outside of a punishment session for Pakistan’s bowlers, but in the end it was their batsmen who suffered the greater reputational damage, having crumpled in a heap to lose a Test they had dominated for two full days.
If Smith and Starc will take all the plaudits for this result, Australia's off-spinner Nathan Lyon was also a star. Earlier in the day's play, talk around the nation had turned to spinner's possible exclusion for the Sydney Test. An hour before lunch on day five that manifested in speculation as to the precise whereabouts of his New South Wales team-mate Steve O'Keefe, whose travel itinerary was being tracked as though he was Edward Snowden.
But the incumbent delivered, rubbishing his critics by removing in the space of three deliveries Pakistan's batting perennials Younus Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq to leave the tourists 63-4. He also nipped out Brisbane Test hero Asad Shafiq, each of his wickets snared to the soundtrack of sharpening knives.
Josh Hazlewood got things rolling at the outset, confirming the wisdom of Smith's early declaration by forcing Sami Aslam to play on in the second of the four overs available before lunch. The lanky paceman swooped down the pitch in the aftermath with both arms extended, approximating both the shape and actual wingspan of a light airplane. From the very first ball after resumption, Starc trapped Babar Azam in front and cause genuine panic among the tourists at 6-2.
There were heroes everywhere. When Shafiq charged Lyon and played an uncharacteristically loose flick towards leg, it was the anticipation, reflexes and juggling skills of Peter Handscomb at short leg that sealed the deal as much as the bowling. Jackson Bird delivered one vital wicket too, castling an unusually restrained Mohammad Amir.
The crucial breakthrough of the day was always going to be the removal of Azhar Ali, and Hazlewood delivered that too after tea by trapping the first innings hero in front for 43. The batsman could not be faulted for reviewing umpire Ian Gould’s decision, for by that point he had withstood Australia’s bowlers for a touch over 12 hours for an aggregate of 248 runs, and had reason to believe he’d never be beaten on this Melbourne tarmac.
That we revelled in such giddy scenes at all today owed to Australia’s enterprising batting in the morning, namely the calculated onslaught from Starc and his skipper. The French modernist architect Le Corbusier was famed for his theory that houses were machines for living in. Its doubtful he ever perused the pages of Wisden, but if he could do so now he’d conclude that cricket stadiums around the world were machines for Steve Smith to bat in.
As Starc rained down an MCG-record seven sixes, the Australian captain reached an undefeated 165 and pushed his Test average further beyond Sobersian measurements as the supporting cast of a result-enabling 154-run partnership.
Smith reached 150 by skipping down the track to Yasir Shah and lofting the beleaguered leg-spinner over long-on for a resounding six, before spearing him to the fine leg fence with what could only be described as a forehand sweep. It’s a tough day at the office when batsmen are actually inventing new ways to punish you. Starc’s blazing knock was simply decisive, allowing Australia to declare at 624-8. The dimensions of their 181-run lead planted seeds of doubt.
Even in victory, changes loom for this Australian side. Whether it qualifies as a genuine dilemma or not, selectors will ponder another spinner with both O'Keefe and Ashton Agar included alongside Hilton Cartwright in a 13-man squad for Sydney, while Chadd Sayers is sent back to domestic ranks. The national selection panel was forced to admit an error in their batting reboot owing to the struggles of Nic Maddinson, who has also been dropped. Two out of three ain't bad.
The wicketkeeping dilemma will also not go away. Australia hasn’t lost since they called upon the incumbent for his moxie and supposed prowess with the willow, but they’ve done little more than rob Peter to pay Wade. But those are minor concerns for at least one night.
As Mitchell Starc was swamped by his team-mates at the conclusion of this win, it was hard not to think back to the conclusion of day two, when Pakistan were set fair at 310-6 from 101.2 overs. At that point it was said by wise observers that the only guaranteed part of the result was that the tourists couldn’t lose. Yet again they found a way to make us and themselves look foolish, and honestly, bless them for that.