New year in New Zealand

K Shahid previews Pakistan's upcoming ODI series against New Zealand

New year in New Zealand
After what was a milestone year both on and off the pitch for Pakistan, the team starts 2018 facing a stiff task in New Zealand. The first ODI begins tomorrow at 3:00 am (PST) in Wellington, with the five-match series to be followed by three T20s.

Pakistan are currently on a run of nine successive ODI wins, the last five of which were the whitewash of Sri Lanka in the UAE and the first four being the historic Champions Trophy winning run where Pakistan overcame South Africa, Sri Lanka, England and India to win the second most illustrious tournament in ODI cricket.

The ODI squad has seen the return of Azhar Ali and Mohammed Amir from their respective injuries. Ahmed Shehzad has been dropped again, while Imad Wasim has been ‘rested’ owing to injury as well, with Mohammad Nawaz replacing him. Both Junaid Khan and Usman Khan Shinwari are out with injuries as well.
Pakistan can't solely rely on the bowlers. The batting would have to come out good, if they are to edge out the series

Pakistan Squad: Sarfraz Ahmed (c) (wk), Azhar Ali, Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez, Haris Sohail, Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Amir, Hasan Ali, Aamer Yamin and Rumman Raees

Support Staff: Mickey Arthur (Head Coach), Talat Ali Malik (Team Manager), Grant Flower (Batting Coach), Azhar Mahmood (Bowling Coach), Steve Rixon (Fielding Coach), Grant Luden (Fitness Coach), Talha Ejaz Butt (Team Analyst), Aun Zaidi (Media Manager) and Colonel Azam Khan (Security Manager)

While the many injuries have helped the selectors avoid tough decisions for the final 15, the team is the closest to the best lot that Pakistan has to offer – a Champions Trophy-winning lot, one might add.

Shoaib Malik

However, despite the outrageously improbable that Pakistan achieved in the summer in England, the ODI series in New Zealand would be a bigger challenge.

Even though New Zealand are just one place above sixth placed Pakistan in the ICC ODI rankings, they (112) are closer to top ranked South Africa (120) than Pakistan (99).

But more than the rankings, it’s actually beating this New Zealand side, in their own backyard, in a bilateral series, that is a telling task.

As far as the personnel is concerned, Pakistan have the bowling lineup to do well in any part of the world and against any opposition. While the Champions Trophy final was a memorable high for the batting, Pakistan’s turnaround in fortunes – as is the norm – was founded upon world-beating bowling performances, which have meant that no team has been able to score more than 236 runs against Pakistan in this winning streak.

Fakhar Zaman

Pakistan have the perfect blend between pace and spin. The pace attack should be spearheaded by Rumman Raees, Mohammed Amir and the now leader of the pack Hasan Ali. The latter was Pakistan’s players of the year in 2017 and his performances will be absolutely critical in New Zealand.

While Imad’s left-arm spin would be missed, Shadab Khan is now adding to his reputation as a budding superstar, kicking off his time at the Big Bash with a big bang for the Brisbane Heat. That he has already acclimatised himself to the pitches Down Under would help him in New Zealand.

Even so, you can bet your house on the fact that Pakistan won’t be restricting New Zealand to less than 236 throughout the series. This means that the batting would have to come good, if Pakistan are to edge out the series.

Hasan Ali

Shadab Khan

Among the batsmen, Fakhar Zaman, Shoaib Malik and the upcoming all-rounder Faheem Ashraf will be critical – these three can bat at a rate that can match New Zealand at their best. Fakhar hasn’t shone with the bat since the Champions Trophy final, while Malik is the mainstay of the middle order – more so than ever before.

Babar Azam has been the most prolific run-getter for Pakistan over the past 15 months, but he needs to come out of the comfort zone and know when to accelerate, to help the team post mightier totals. The 250-280 scores just won’t do against New Zealand.

While Sarfraz Ahmed is off to a supreme start as the skipper in both limited-overs formats, the New Zealand tour might just be his toughest test yet. We would know a lot more about the recent past and new future of Pakistan cricket team at the other end of this series.