Key battles to decide Australia v Pakistan
IT'S only been four years since Australia last played Pakistan in a Test series in the United Arab Emirates, but plenty has changed for both teams since.
Gone are Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan for the quasi-hosts, while Australia has lost Michael Clarke, Mitchell Johnson, Chris Rogers and Brad Haddin to retirement, and David Warner and Steve Smith to suspension.
That series saw Mitchell Marsh and Yasir Shah make their Test debuts. Yasir has gone on to establish himself as the world's best red-ball legspinner and Marsh is the only survivor from Australia's top seven that series. He's also Tim Paine's new deputy.
Paine, of course, is the fourth wicketkeeper Australia has had since that series, inheriting the gloves from Matthew Wade, who in turn took them from Peter Nevill who followed Brad Haddin.
This will be Paine's first full Test series in charge, having taken over from Smith after the ugliness of Cape Town. He's only the fifth keeper to ever captain Australia's Test team. Coincidentally, his counterpart Sarfraz Ahmed is the fifth keeper to captain his Test side too.
How the two men fare as keepers, batsmen and captains will go a long way to deciding this series. That's just one of the key match-ups that could shape the next month.
Mitch Starc vs Azhar Ali
These two world-class athletes will start proceedings in the Pakistan innings, likely to feature with bat and ball for the first delivery.
With Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins absent, the Australians heavily rely on left-arm spearhead Starc to replicate his performance against Sri Lanka in 2016. He took 26 wickets at 15.16 across that three-Test series in the subcontinent.
However, injury concerns loom as a problem for the 28-year-old - in each of Australia's last three Test series, Starc has missed at least one match due to an injury in his right leg.
Against Pakistan, Starc has taken 16 wickets in four Test matches at an average of 38.68.
Azhar Ali was Pakistan's highest run scorer in the last Test series between these nations - he scored 406 runs at 81.20 in the 2016-17 tour, including a mammoth 205 not out during the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne.
In the 2014 Test series, the now 33-year-old hit twin centuries in the second match at Abu Dhabi, finishing with scores of 109 and 100* - Starc was the only Australian bowler to dismiss him in that fixture.
Since making his Test debut against Australia in 2010, Azhar Ali has scored 837 runs at a healthy average of 69.75 in seven fixtures against Australia.
Tim Paine vs Sarfraz Ahmed
Both captains, both classy keepers, both with something to prove.
Tim Paine enters this series as permanent Australian Test captain for the first time. In the wake of the ball-tampering scandal and the embarrassing 5-0 drubbing against England in June, this series signals the start of a new era for Australian cricket and the Tasmanian keeper-batsman.
It's easy to forget that 12 months ago Paine wasn't even in contention for a spot in the national side before his shock call-up for the Ashes in November last year - however, he quickly silenced his critics, finishing the series with 26 dismissals, the equal fourth highest ever by a wicketkeeper.
Handed the international captaincy last year, Sarfraz Ahmed led Pakistan to its first 50-over world title since Imran Khan, winning the 2017 Champions Trophy in England.
The 31-year-old keeper-batsman has played six Tests against Australia, averaging 53.57 with the bat with two fifties and a century - a quick-fire 109 in Dubai. However, the Pakistan captain hasn't scored a century in his last 29 Test matches, the most recent being 112 against New Zealand in November 2014.
Both these inexperienced leaders will also spend the majority of the upcoming series keeping against spinners on unpredictable decks - missed stumpings and loose byes could be the difference in a close contest.
Nathan Lyon vs Asad Shafiq
The Pakistan batsmen punished Nathan Lyon last time he visited the UAE - the off-spinner finished the two-Test series with three wickets at an embarrassing average of 140.67.
However, Lyon redeemed himself in recent tours to the subcontinent in 2017. Against India and Bangladesh, he took 41 wickets in six Tests at an average of 19.39, including career-best figures of 8-50 at Bangalore.
It has also been widely regarded that the 30-year-old struggles against right-hand batsman, with the majority of his Test wickets in the 2017-18 Ashes series being left-handed.
Despite facing off in five previous Test matches, Lyon has only dismissed right-handed Asad Shafiq once.
Against Australia, 32-year-old Shafiq has scored 349 runs in five Tests at a commendable average of 43.62.
Shafiq is remembered for his man-of-the-match performance during the day-night Test at Brisbane in 2016, where he scored a classy 137 in the fourth innings, almost single-handedly saving Pakistan from defeat.
Lyon will be itching to demonstrate his improvement since 2014, and will undoubtedly be targeting Shafiq, who is a mainstay of the Pakistan middle-order.
Yasir Shah vs Mitch Marsh
Four years ago, Marsh played his debut Test match at Dubai against a strong Pakistan outfit. He now returns as the Australian vice-captain and arguably the most reliable batsman in the squad.
The 26-year-old endured a horror start to his Test career with the bat - after 21 Test matches, he averaged just 21.74 with the bat. It was his mammoth 181 during the Ashes at his home ground in Perth that finally firmed Marsh's hold on his Test spot after being dropped multiple times.
The younger Marsh brother is coming off a period of good form with the bat - he scored 113 in the second Australia A tour match against India A and an imposing 162 in Australia's only warm-up match against Pakistan A.
Embedded in the middle-order, the all-rounder will be intent on taking down Pakistan's strike spinner Yasir Shah.
Making his debut against Australia at Dubai in 2014, the leg-spinner dominated the two-Test series, claiming 12 wickets at an average of 17.25. However, Yasir struggled in the recent 2016-17 tour to Australia - unable to have the same impact, he claimed eight wickets at an average of 84.00 in the 3-0 whitewash.
Yasir has not played a Test this year, missing Pakistan's tour of England with a stress fracture in his hip. He has only taken three wickets across the six matches he has played since returning from injury. Nevertheless, Australia would be wise not to underestimate a man with a bowling average of 24.80 in Asia.