RAWALIPNDI: Pakistan captain Babar Azam (L) and his New Zealand counterpart Tom Latham pose with the ODI series trophy at the Pindi Cricket Stadium on Thursday.—Tanveer Shahzad/White Star
RAWALIPNDI: Pakistan captain Babar Azam (L) and his New Zealand counterpart Tom Latham pose with the ODI series trophy at the Pindi Cricket Stadium on Thursday.—Tanveer Shahzad/White Star

RAWALPINDI: There is a touch of history linked with Friday’s opening One-day International between Pakistan and New Zealand at the Pindi Cricket Stadium here in Rawalpindi.

Call them the Black Caps of modern or the Kiwis of the era gone by, this is the New Zealand’s first tour to Pakistan after a gaping span of nearly 18 years. In the cricketing annals, Sunday, Feb 11, 1973 was a momentous day — it was the joint ODI debut of both New Zealand and Pakistan, just two years after the format was introduced at the international level.

And although New Zealand won that 40-over (when eight balls constituted an over in some countries) game at Christchurch’s Lancaster Park — precisely 17,750 days ago — by 22 runs, Pakistan have not lagged behind thereafter and now are ahead in the head-to-head count, winning 55 times to New Zealand’s 48.

The last time New Zealand were in Pakistan at the end of 2003, they disappeared without a trace during a 5-0 drubbing by the home team, and have won just thrice — by one run Sialkot, 1976; 34 runs, Sialkot 1984 and seven wickets Karachi 1996 — in 20 previous fixtures while visiting these shores.

While the series is now reduced to a bilateral contest in the absence of the DRS facility, there are still worrying signs for Pakistan for the sterner test ahead — the Twenty20 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

As of now, however, Pakistan have had a rocky run into the latest ODI series, both on and off the field. An England side, robbed of quite a lot of their first-choice stars, whitewashed Babar Azam’s side 3-0. On top of it, Misbah-ul-Haq resigned as head coach while bowling coach Waqar Younis also quit simultaneously.

Saqlain Mushtaq, the inventor of ‘doosra’ and PCB’s head of international player development, has been slotted in as the interim head coach with fellow ex-Pakistan player Abdul Razzaq taking the bowling coach’s role.

So preparation-wise, Pakistan — despite claims of everything being in control — are set to tread a tightrope against a side which is currently at the pinnacle of the International Cricket Council’s ODI rankings. Top guns like regular captain Kane Williamson, Trent Boult, Kyle Jamieson, Lockie Ferguson and Tim Southee are unavailable due to various commitments while seasoned campaigner Ross Taylor has been rested, ahead of a busy season for New Zealand.

And despite being denied services of wicket-keeper Tom Blundell for the ODI leg through injury, the Tom Latham-led Black Caps have called up Daryl Mitchell from the T20 squad; the all-rounder though would only become eligible for selection from second ODI onwards.

The prospects of the straw-coloured pitch — as evident on the match eve — aiding spin more than anything else and Pakistan opting to field at least two leg-spinners from the trio announced in the 12-man party on Wednesday, New Zealand are certain to bank on all-rounder Cole McConchie — who bowls off-spin and is here in the absence of left-handed all-rounder Mitchell Santner — and Ajaz Patel, the slow left-armer who is coming off good T20 series in Dhaka.

Pakistan captain Babar Azam refused to take the bait of ‘go-easy’ feeling, while admitting his team wanted to play New Zealand at full strength.

“For sure, we were looking forward to an enthralling battle against them when the series was confirmed. But nonetheless, Pakistan will not underestimate this New Zealand side either and we’ve got to play our best cricket to defeat them,” Babar said during Thursday’s pre-series virtual news conference. “One will see a different Pakistan team which will play ‘fearless’ cricket against New Zealand.”

The Pakistan captain, who still is finding his way as the ODI leader after winning only four of nine matches, negated the impression that leg-spin would be Pakistan’s forte.

“Nothing of that sort. We are mindful of the World Cup also coming up and therefore, it was decided that we should gain practice as much as possible in conditions akin to what Pakistan would get in the UAE,” Babar insisted.

“We shortlisted three leg-spinners because [Mohammad] Nawaz became unavailable due to Covid-19 and is currently in isolation,” the skipper said of the left-handed all-rounder.

Babar also expressed optimism over Pakistan’s indifferent fielding since Steve Rixon left the scene in 2018.

“I know this has been a lingering issue for us over the past couple of years,” the captain conceded. “But having said that I feel there is some improvement. However, there is still some way to go where we can assert ourselves as a good fielding unit.”

Both the teams had final practice in late afternoon shortly after rival skippers unveiled the series trophy on a day when the mercury touched mid-30s — the feel-like temperature was a maximum 39-degree Celsius — while the air was quite hot.

Meanwhile in a welcome change, the previously unpleasant sight of barren concrete stands on both sides outside the ground, adjacent to the stands on either side of the two main buildings, has been tastefully decorated with temporary chairs of assorted-colour clothing. It means the 25 per cent officially allowed for the series will see around 4,500 spectators turn up on each of the three match days.

Teams (from):

PAKISTAN: Imam-ul-Haq, Fakhar Zaman, Babar Azam (captain), Saud Shakeel, Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Rizwan, Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Haris Rauf, Usman Qadir, Zahid Mahmood

NEW ZEALAND: Tom Latham (captain), Rachin Ravindra, Finn Allen, Will Young, Henry Nicholls, Daryl Mitchell, Colin de Grandhomme, Doug Bracewell, Cole McConchie, Scott Kuggeleijn, Matt Henry, Hamish Bennett, Blair Tickner, Ajaz Patel, Jacob Duffy

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pakistan) and Ahsan Raza (Pakistan)

TV umpire: Asif Yaqoob (Pakistan)

Match referee: Mohammad Javed Malik (Pakistan)

Published in Dawn, September 17th, 2021

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