Defiant Uzzy gives Aussies glimmer of hope
USMAN Khawaja is all that stands between Australia and first Test defeat in Dubai after a pair of Marsh brother ducks pushed the new-look side to the precipice.
Australia are in a desperate situation after losing 3-0 in another crippling mini-collapse and must now survive a full fifth day if they're to pull off what would be a miraculous draw.
So far, Khawaja and debutant Travis Head are showing courage under fire.
Khawaja stood tall to silence his critics in Asia with a gutsy unbeaten half century, but Australia will resume with virtually no margin for error in their quest to baton down the hatches for three straight sessions after going to stumps 3-136 having already navigated their way through 50 overs.
After making another impressive start, Aaron Finch's departure lbw for 49 sparked alarm bells in the Aussie change room when Shaun Marsh lasted just two balls and little brother Mitchell just four in two and a half overs of carnage.
Travis Head survived an lbw DRS appeal on a pair, having made a duck on debut in the first innings, but the South Australian found his groove and showed impressive fight to be 36 not out at stumps.
Australia are still 326 runs away from pulling off a world record run chase, but saving the Test can be the sole focus for Justin Langer's chargers especially with paceman Mohammad Abbas already creating havoc with three wickets.
Khawaja (50 not out) was given a life on 47 when he was dropped at first slip, but was otherwise a calm and stoic presence at the crease.
It's his second half century of the match, proving he can thrive in the spinning conditions that have plagued him his entire career.
But the story of the match and Australia's history in Asia is that wickets come in clumps, and Khawaja needs to make a big hundred if the tourists are to be any chance.
Head admitted post-play that starting an innings is becoming increasingly difficult on a wearing wicket, and fellow debutant Marnus Labuschagne is sitting the sheds with enormous pressure on his shoulders should a wicket fall.
Finch and Khawaja (37no) passed the first test by getting to tea unscathed at 0-72 to continue their impressive start as a pairing, but Australia's debilitating first innings collapse was proof of their tenuous existence still 374 runs behind when the second wicket fell.
The moment Finch and Khawaja's 142-run opening stand in the first dig ended, utter capitulation followed and batting was only getting tougher on a deteriorating fourth day pitch after Pakistan declared at 6-181.
But Australia were also faced with a battle inside the battle.
Australia's plight in Dubai will turn quickly to the first management nightmare of the summer, with a decision looming on how far to push spearhead Mitchell Starc.
Starc is only just back from six months on the sidelines and is absolutely paramount to Australia's hopes during the home summer and then the marquee World Cup and Ashes assignments to come over the next calendar year.
Australia have a comfortable four-day break before the second and final Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi but selectors must weigh up the benefits of potentially playing a long game with their most prized asset.
The big left-armer missing an extended period over the next few months would be disastrous.
Starc sent down 31 overs in the tour match against Pakistan A, and 42 in the first Test where he bowled on four consecutive days on a back-breaking pitch.
He cramped in the oppressive heat on day one, although when it comes to the call over whether he should back-up, that's less relevant than the fact Starc has taken just two wickets in his first 73 overs of the tour.
This is not a fast bowler's surface.
Debutant Marnus Labuschagne continued to impress with his part-time leg-spin as he took his second Test wicket, bowling well in partnership with Jon Holland who claimed his third scalp of the innings.
Former National Selector Mark Waugh said on Fox Cricket that Glenn Maxwell should have been picked for this tour and that Matt Renshaw would come into consideration for the second Test.
Australia may not be able to win without Starc against India this summer, but how much difference can he make in Abu Dhabi?
Selectors were close to blooding Queenslander Michael Neser in the first Test and was deliberately bowled in the tour match so he would be ready for a potential call-up.
Former Test great Mitchell Johnson believes Starc was over-bowled last summer.
Australia are days away from needing to make a decision and Starc says he's prepared to play the two Tests and Twenty20 matches in the UAE.
"Those conversations (workload) will continue to be had throughout the summer. I'm really looking forward to these two Test matches first and foremost," said Starc before the first Test.
"I don't think I've played Twenty20 in about two years. That's exciting as well.
"I've had a lot of time the last few months to let my body heal by itself rather than having to rush back to play some cricket.
"I feel fit and ready to go."
Starc says his breakdown earlier this year was due to a multitude of factors, not just too much bowling.
"I don't know to be honest. A mixture of things. Between the uneven creases in South Africa, a lot of bowling throughout the summer. You can put a few things down on a list," he said.
Fellow fast bowling leader and newly-named vice-captain Josh Hazlewood admits Australia's quicks will have to be told to rest at choice moments over the next 12 months.
"It's about how we manage the quicks through that period. We obviously want to play every game, but that's not possible over the next 18 months," said Hazlewood.
"It's about missing a game here or there … getting that strength back up."
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