Australia’s hopes of winning back respect and moving on from a ball-tampering scandal that plunged the team into disgrace face their first Test on Sunday when Tim Paine’s rebuilding side meet Pakistan in the series-opener in Dubai.
With former captain Steve Smith, and opening batsmen David Warner and Cameron Bancroft serving suspensions for ‘Sandpaper-gate’, the Australians have brought a vastly different squad to the Middle East from the one belted 3-1 in South Africa six months ago.
A whole third of the 15 in the United Arab Emirates have yet to play a Test, and Paine’s side will feature three uncapped players when they head out into the Dubai heat to play Sarfraz Ahmed-captained Pakistan in the first match.
Paine will be supported by a new vice-captain in all-rounder Mitchell Marsh and a new coach in former Test opener Justin Langer.
Change is also in the air back in Australia, with the nation’s cricket board announcing a successor to long-serving CEO James Sutherland, even before the release of a review into the board’s culture and governance.
With a separate review into the culture of the men’s team also set to land, Australia will be under plenty of scrutiny during the two-Test series which finishes in Abu Dhabi.
Paine, who many feel is only a caretaker captain until Smith becomes eligible for the role again, has no illusions about the scale of the task.
“We want to build a culture that makes people want to be better and produce not only better cricketers but better people,” he told Fairfax Media.
“If we can do that, that’s the sort of environment people want to be involved in and that culture spreads really quickly through the team rather than having to try and sell your culture all the time — just set that culture, live that culture, and guys that want to be involved will carry it through.”
Australia enjoyed a positive warmup, with opener Aaron Finch, middle order batsman Travis Head and the Marsh brothers all getting runs in the tour match against a Pakistan ‘A’ side.
That was enough for Langer to confirm one-day specialist Finch and South Australia skipper Head would play their first Tests.
South Africa-born batsman Marnus Labuschagne was confirmed as the third debutant on Saturday, with Matt Renshaw overlooked due to match fitness concerns rather than concussion fears.
“The decision was made that he just hadn’t played enough cricket,” Paine said of Renshaw, who was struck in the head by the ball when fielding in the tour match.
“Marnus has played quite a bit of cricket on the A tour and he’s in really good form and he deserves a chance.”
Pace workhorse Peter Siddle will support spearhead Mitchell Starc rather than the uncapped Michael Neser.
Usman Khawaja will open with Finch, with Mitch Marsh promoted to fourth in the batting order behind his brother Shaun. Head will bat at five ahead of Labuschagne.
Pakistan are in the midst of their own rebuild in the wake of retirements to former skipper Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, but having trounced a stronger Australia 2-0 in the last UAE series in 2014, they will fancy themselves to win this one.
Little may be expected of Paine’s Australia in a series that will play out when home fans are sleeping, but the 33-year-old skipper is mindful that results, as well as culture, are key to restoring good will.
“We are certainly making some changes and it’s something we are really serious about but we are also aware that we need to be playing a high level of cricket and winning games,” he said.