The Pakistan team: relieved after coming out of quarantine
The Pakistan team: relieved after coming out of quarantine

The veracity of the coronavirus tests undertaken before the 54-strong Pakistan cricket squad landed in New Zealand has become a point of contention, after no less than 10 members were tested positive since their arrival there. The stringent measures of the New Zealand health ministry have already created an ugly situation with the tour threatened with being aborted — even before the first ball had been bowled.

According to New Zealand regulations, all overseas arrivals are required to spend two weeks in quarantine, with sports teams that return negative tests after three days granted permission to train together in isolation.

During their stay in a bio-secure bubble at the four-star quarantine hotel, some Pakistan squad members were found mingling together in breach of the managed isolation rules — a mistake the West Indies were guilty of committing as well after their arrival in New Zealand, and just like their Pakistani counterparts, they too were barred from training after isolation protocol breaches.

From Pakistan’s perspective, mercifully, sanity finally prevailed on Dec 7 when the visitors were granted permission to quit the mandatory 14-day isolation after virus tests done the previous day yielded negative results. The latest scenario means Pakistan cricketers are free to undergo the training sessions in preparation for the three-match Twenty20 International series against the Black Caps before the Babar Azam-led side encounters Kane Williamson’s New Zealand team in two Tests.

The Pakistan cricket team’s tour of New Zealand is already proving to be quite eventful, even ahead of the matches. But what can we look forward to in cricketing terms?

Head coach Misbah-ul-Haq was understandably irritated at the unexpected developments at the start of the trip, since the entire tour party of 34 cricketers and the 20-man backroom staff had to face managed isolation in Christchurch and were not even permitted to train in small groups until each member received clearance from the local authorities.

Misbah — who retired in 2017 as Pakistan’s most successful Test captain before taking over in August 2019 as the head coach as well as the chief selector (a position he quit recently) — minced no words in stating that the bizarre lead-up to the series has obviously mentally and physically taken a toll on his players.

“Implementation of certain regulations has affected our athletes. Top professionals require a certain environment to prepare, so that they are able to perform every time they are asked to represent their countries,” Misbah pointed out, before adding that, “But we will try to put all this behind us and focus on the challenges of competing against one of the top teams.”

“New Zealand definitely boasts some of the best cricketing facilities and I want our players to make optimum use of the opportunities they’ll get. All they now need is to show how much belief, faith and trust they have in their own capabilities.”

Former captain Sarfaraz Ahmed and batting all-rounder Hussain Talat are the only changes to the Pakistan 18-member T20 squad which whitewashed Zimbabwe at Rawalpindi in October/November. Fakhar Zaman had to be pulled out of the Auckland-bound flight after the left-handed opening batsman was found to be running a fever on the eve of the team’s departure. The recovering Fakhar is now confined to domestic cricket in the ongoing Quaid-e-Azam Trophy competition.

Fortunately for Pakistan, their Test preparations won’t be greatly hurt, since the likes of ex-captain Azhar Ali, regular opening pair of Shan Masood and Abid Ali, Fawad Alam, Haris Sohail and Imam-ul-Haq stand to benefit from their four-day outing for the Pakistan Shaheens — who are also concurrently down in New Zealand — by facing a decent New Zealand ‘A’ bowling attack in the solitary first-class fixture at Queenstown.

Likewise, Test bowlers Mohammad Abbas, Yasir Shah and teenaged Naseem Shah will have the opportunity to find their rhythm ahead of the sterner challenge of bowling to Williamson and company across the World Test Championship games at the Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui (Dec 26-30) and Christchurch’s Hagley Oval (Jan 3-7).

New Zealand — currently fourth behind Australia, India and England in the World Test Championship table — annihilated West Indies by an innings in less than four days, on the back of a masterly Williamson knock — a career-best 251 — and could leapfrog England if they repeat the dose against Jason Holder’s men in the second Test.

Pakistan, on the other hand, are sitting fifth on the table and will be more than 100 points behind the New Zealanders if the Kiwis triumph again against the Windies.

The recent history against New Zealand in the five-day format also points to a huge task for Babar, who will be making his debut as Test captain after being announced as the all-format Pakistan captain after Azhar Ali was stripped of the Test team leadership. Pakistan were blanked 2-0 on their previous Test tour to New Zealand in 2016, during the final phase of Misbah’s tenure as skipper.

New Zealand followed that up with a memorable 2-1 series victory in the United Arab Emirates in 2018 — which was just their second series success away from home against Pakistan, and one that came after a long span of 39 years. And though Pakistan enjoy overall supremacy, with their 25 victories in 58 Tests more than double New Zealand’s one dozen against them, it is worth noting that the last time New Zealand lost a series in their own backyard to Pakistan was 10 seasons ago. That was when, unsurprisingly, Misbah had barely begun his tenure, following the Salman Butt episode in the infamous spot-fixing scandal in August 2010.

In the past decade, New Zealand have gradually blossomed into a formidable unit on their home soil. Give their pace trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and that awkward slinger Neil Wagner a green top, and they are more likely than not to play havoc against opposing sides. The upcoming Test battles should be one of the most chastening experiences for a batting line-up that will require anyone who has the grit and determination to just hang in there.

Azhar losing the role of captaincy could be a blessing in disguise for Pakistan because, to be honest, he wasn’t the right material for leadership. During his brief stint, he was often bereft of ideas and never showed much imaginativeness on the field of play.

It is too early to envisage how Azhar’s successor, Babar Azam, will fare as a Test captain. There is no doubt that the Pakistan Cricket Board have taken a massive gamble in handing arguably the national side’s best batsman an onerous responsibility. Thankfully, the official word from Gaddafi Stadium is that Babar has the capacity to mentally absorb pressure and to thrive at all levels.

In his short period as the limited-overs skipper, Babar has provided some glimpses that he can be nervy and prone to losing his cool. A case in point was the recent final ODI against Zimbabwe, in which a certain Pakistan victory was sensationally turned into a tie, a result that forced a Super Over which the visitors won. Being the team leader, Babar should understand that he will be under the microscope much more than when he was just a playing member.

There is a general fear expressed in different quarters that Babar may feel the heat particularly during days when it is tough going on the Test match front, and that this may undermine his batting. If that were to happen, there is an unending road that Pakistan will have to travel on before being rated among the top teams.

Pakistan’s Twenty20 ratings have already taken a tumble following the unceremonious departure of the feisty Sarfaraz Ahmed, who had taken Pakistan to the top in the shortest format. The coming games in Auckland (Dec 18), Hamilton (Dec 20) and Napier (Dec 22) will surely determine where the currently fourth-ranked Pakistan are heading, with the first of two back-to-back Twenty20 World Cups now less than just 11 months away.

And if Babar needs any inspiration on that front, he simply needs to reminisce about the last time Pakistan took on New Zealand in New Zealand — Sarfaraz leading his side to a come-from-behind 2-1 series win in January 2018. Overall, Pakistan lead the Black Caps 13-8 in their head-to-head count on the Twenty20 International front. Pakistan will hope that counts for something.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 13th, 2020

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