Comment: Pakistan must not get bogged down by challenges on New Zealand tour

Published January 6, 2018
Pakistan stand for their national anthem during the first one day international cricket match against New Zealand. —AFP
Pakistan stand for their national anthem during the first one day international cricket match against New Zealand. —AFP

TOURS Down Under have been tough for the Pakistan teams, a fact that was recently mentioned by former Pakistan captain Waqar Younis as well in a talk show.

This is also evident from Pakistan’s 0.62 win/loss ratio in the 47 ODIs that they have played in New Zealand.

But since their fairytale run in the Champions Trophy, Pakistan have become a force to reckon in one-day cricket. They enter this series with a nine-match winning streak which include Sri Lanka’s 5-0 drubbing in a home series.

To put things into perspective, Pakistan’s last ODI defeat came on June 4 against India in their first Champions Trophy match. That also means that opener Fakhar Zaman is yet to see his team lose an ODI.

However, now Pakistan are up against a formidable New Zealand side that has won eight of their eleven ODIs at home in the last 12 months. They have whitewashed a resurgent Bangladesh, Australia, and most recently the West Indies.

Their all three losses this year came against South Africa during a 3-2 series defeat which was their only series loss at home in the past one year.

Pakistan’s head coach Mickey Arthur admitted that the New Zealand series will be “very tough for us” on the eve of their warm-up match against New Zealand XI. “Not many teams come to New Zealand and win. I’m confident if we play to our abilities, we would be a very good match for them,” he said.

It is not only the proposition of playing New Zealand that is intriguing. Pakistan are also faced by some internal challenges that they need to surmount.

First and foremost of the challenges is how to make the best use of its rather depleted bowling attack which has mainly been hampered by injuries to key bowlers such as Junaid Khan, Usman Khan Shinwari, and Imad Wasim.

Their absence put additional burden on strike bowlers Mohammad Amir and Hasan Ali, the latter being the highest wicket-taker of 2017 in ODIs with 45 wickets at a fantastic average of 17.04. There is also young Rumman Raees who likely to once again share the new ball with Amir.

Raees rose to prominence due to his foxy slower-ones in the PSL but since his ODI debut against England in the all-important Champions Trophy semi-final, the 26-year-old has demonstrated his ability of moving the new ball at a challenging pace.

The second challenge is to find a bowler who could assume the role of Mohammad Hafeez the spinner. Though the conditions in New Zealand largely favour fast-bowlers, an off-spinner like Hafeez finds drift and skids the new ball early. With four left-handed batsmen – Henry Nicholls, Tom Latham, George Walker, and Colin Munro — in the side, Hafeez would have come in handy as 73 of his 136 wickets have been left-handers.

Shoaib Malik, as touted by Sarfraz Ahmed before his side’s departure for New Zealand, will fill in for Hafeez. In the past few series the presence of Imad, Hafeez, and Shadab Khan hardly ever allowed the need for Malik to turn his arm over. The veteran all-rounder bowled only 29 overs in 17 matches picking up two wickets at 72 apiece.

However, Malik could now find himself taking up the role of a regular spinner against New Zealand batting that has averaged a staggering 37 at home in the last 12 months on grounds with shorter boundaries and surfaces that don’t offer much purchase to the spinners.

The third and the biggest challenge is the faring of the Pakistan batsmen who usually struggle outside Asia and are not really known for their ability to counter sharp bounce and lateral movement. They will be exposed to both these conditions in New Zealand after the home side’s decision to not use the drop-in pitches during the five ODIs.

Pakistan’s overall batting average since the 2011 World Cup has been 32.05. It falls by almost seven runs to 25.46 in New Zealand, their lowest in any country in this period. In their last two series against New Zealand in New Zealand - Pakistan have averaged just 24 in four ODIs whereas the Kiwis have averaged 49. The tourists last won an ODI series in New Zealand in 2011.

Pakistan rely heavily on their bowlers to deliver and often they end up winning matches just on the basis of their bowling. But to surmount an opposition like New Zealand at home, the Pakistani batsmen will need to rise and take the fight to the opposition.

In their recent warm-up against New Zealand XI, that Pakistan won by 120 runs, both openers Azhar Ali and Fakhar Zaman struck centuries which is heartening indeed. However, the other three — Babar Azam, Hafeez, and Malik — failed to enter even double digits which is indeed a matter of concern as the tour match had no big names in bowling.

Sarfraz’s men are an aggressive bunch and will be no pushover for New Zealand but it is essential that they keep their head and play to their potential to make every game a contest.

Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2018

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