If inconsistency is the bane of Pakistan cricket, obscurity has to be New Zealand’s. These are two sides who never quite seem to get the credit they merit – indeed, the credit they have earned. They both go into this series in excellent form, though you wouldn’t know it by the chatter (read: pin-drop silence) this series has generated. You only have to declare your admiration for a recent string of impressive results Pakistan may have strung together, only to have it waved away with the inescapable riposte, “It’s Pakistan, mate, you won’t have to wait long to see it all fall apart.”
The Black Caps’ problem, on the other hand, is one entirely out of their control. Overshadowed almost entirely by their extroverted neighbours, they find themselves perennially damned by faint praise and lionised by verbal pats on the head. Too few people watch their home season – partly because of the time difference with most of the rest of the world – to be au fait with the state of New Zealand cricket at any given point in time. They are well liked and supported, but mainly because they’re viewed as innocent, harmless underdogs. In essence, they are the cricketing version of that most dreadful of platitudes: that nice guys finish last.
It isn’t even true in their case. But it is why it’s easy to forget that the Black Caps are currently the World Cup runners-up, and why it barely registered when they overtook the side they face on Saturday as the top-ranked T20I side this week. They have put together formidable results at home over the past five years, and are hot on the back of demolishing the hapless West Indies in every Test, ODI and T20I they played, even while resting key players like Kane Williamson, Trent Boult and Tim Southee along the way.
Pakistan, meanwhile, still haven’t disembarked the cloud nine they’ve been on since they caught fire in the Champions Trophy all the way back in June. They haven’t lost an ODI since, and rock up to this series with nine wins on the bounce in the format. However, the limited-overs whitewashes against Sri Lanka haven’t quite convinced some, with this away series being viewed as the benchmark to assess what progress – if any – has been made. However, it would be disingenuous to deny that the Champions Trophy, at least, was won in decidedly foreign conditions, and so Pakistan’s reputed partiality to home comforts has been somewhat exaggerated.
This is a meeting of two form sides, and if each plays to its potential, it could prove to be every bit as absorbing as the higher-profile series in Australia and South Africa that eclipse this one.
New Zealand WWWLL (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
While Martin Guptill has never cracked the red-ball code, he remains one of the most elegantly destructive batsmen in limited-overs cricket. Back in the squad for the first two ODIs after missing much of the West Indies series with injury, Guptill showed glimpses of the form that has seen him regarded so highly by the New Zealand hierarchy in the third T20I, scoring 63 off 38 balls.
That doesn’t detract, however, from a lean 2017 for the New Zealand opener. He has found it hard to get going in ODIs, with no score above 33 in his last seven innings. However, you only need to look at the innings just before that to understand why he slots straight back into the side when fit – an unbeaten 180 against South Africa to seal a 7-wicket win.
Pakistan’s openers from the Champions Trophy final, Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman, both impressed hugely in a tour game against a New Zealand XI, scoring centuries before retiring out, and helping their side to a crushing 120-run win. While Pakistan have often looked elsewhere for openers when playing on slower surfaces, Azhar’s superior technique and temperament see him get the nod in conditions of the sort New Zealand’s pitches will offer. He looks set to have nailed down the opening slot already, but how he actually performs against bowlers of the quality of Boult and Southee – as opposed to the more modest challenges of the New Zealand XI he faced in Nelson – will go a long way towards determining how successful Pakistan will be on this tour.
New Zealand should field a full-strength side for the first game, with Kane Williamson returning to take over as captain from stand-in Tom Latham. Tim Southee, who was also rested for the last two ODIs against West Indies, is expected to start.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Colin Munro, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Tom Latham (wk), 6 Henry Nicholls, 7 Mitchell Santner, 8 Todd Astle, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Matt Henry/Lockie Ferguson, 11 Trent Boult,
Pakistan may well opt to stick with the side that won the tour game so convincingly, which would mean Imam-ul-Haq, who has started his career brightly, may have to sit the opening game out. Mohammad Hafeez is expected to play his first match as a specialist batsman since he was banned from bowling, with Shoaib Malik expected to take over that part-time responsibility.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Azhar Ali, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Shoaib Malik, 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 7 Faheem Ashraf, 8 Shadab Khan, 9 Mohammad Amir, 10 Hasan Ali, 11 Rumman Raees
Pitch and conditions
The Basin Reserve, which hosts ODI cricket for the first time since January 2016, has historically offered seam and bounce for the bowlers. However, having not seen the ground host much limited-overs cricket of late, it is difficult to predict what sort of strip will be on offer. Rain is forecast for Saturday, but with enough dry spells to allow a completed game.
Stats and trivia
New Zealand, traditionally considered Pakistan’s whipping boys, have won 11 of the last 12 matches across formats against the visitors. The only loss came in a T20I in Auckland in January 2016
It has been two years since the last time the Basin Reserve hosted an ODI. The game, too, was a contest between New Zealand and Pakistan. New Zealand won by 70 runs.