Familiar conditions offer New Zealand chance to shake off India nightmare
- Sports, Published on: Wednesday 16th November 16 - 8:05pm
For once, Pakistan aren't attracting pre-series headlines. There has been no turmoil on this trip. No stirred-up talk of an embattled captaincy or selection chaos. Mohammad Amir's re-entry into international cricket is old news. The only distraction has been Monday morning's 7.5-magnitude earthquake, but even that has barely affected Christchurch, even if it did give the visitors a jolt in Nelson.
If there has been an uncommon dearth of diversions, it is partly because the cricket is so tantalising. Pakistan, arguably the best all-conditions team on the planet, will embark on a long southern summer in which, with some luck, they will have a tilt at the top ranking. New Zealand, battered in India and South Africa, seek to re-impose themselves on the seam-friendly venues where a formidable home record had recently been composed.
Having not lost a Test series since August 2014, Pakistan should enter the contest as favourites, only, such is the sway of home advantage in recent years, that New Zealand will not feel like underdogs on their soil.
Tim Southee returns to the side with a fresh first-class five-for, after having sat out the India Tests with injury. Neil Wagner and James Neesham have also displayed good domestic bowling form. Todd Astle may not be in the league of Yasir Shah, but he does have a five-wicket haul at Hagley Oval in the past three weeks. None of this may matter when an experienced Pakistan middle order gets moving, but after a dispiriting stint in India, these are the mildly-pleasant tidbits of information New Zealand are repeating to themselves in the mirror.
Although they had lost the Sharjah dead rubber to West Indies, there is a restrained confidence to the Pakistan side, perhaps stemming from memories of that 2-2 result in England, or even from their most-recent series in New Zealand, which they had won. Of the likely attack, Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz have both played in the country. Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq have all done likewise.
New Zealand's best hope may lie in harder, faster pitches, the likes of which helped England triumph over Pakistan in Edgbaston; the complication, being of course, that their own top order, which is low on form and carrying a newbie in opener Jeet Raval, must also withstand the bowling of Amir, Wahab and the like.
New Zealand: LLLLD (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
This year Ross Taylor has scored 456 Test runs at an average of 57, only 364 of those runs came against Zimbabwe, who had not previously played a Test in 20 months. Against other opposition, he has not scored a half-century since the 290 at Perth, over a year ago. Though his place in the side is secure for now - he was hardly the only New Zealand batsman struggling in India - Kane Williamson will hope his senior batsman will take the lead in yanking the top order out of its funk.
On the other end of the form spectrum, Azhar Ali is coming off a sublime series against West Indies, in which he hit 302 not out, 79 and 91. Following a tough 2013, Azhar has averaged over 50 in each of the past two years, and has a 2016 average of 64.08, after 14 innings. He now has the opportunity to transition from being a good player to an outstanding one. Healthy returns in New Zealand will add heft to an improving record.
Kane Williamson confirmed opener Raval will debut on Thursday, while Astle also looks set for his second Test. New Zealand have three spots for four fast bowlers, and, of those, Matt Henry looks likeliest to miss out. Allrounder James Neesham may also play ahead of Colin de Grandhomme.
New Zealand (possible): 1. Jeet Raval, 2 Tom Latham, 3 Kane Williamson, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Henry Nicholls, 6 James Neesham, 7 BJ Watling (wk), 8 Todd Astle, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Neil Wagner, 11 Trent Boult
Pakistan are also faced with decisions on their attack. As the pitch appears seam friendly, Sohail Khan may feature alongside Amir, Wahab and Yasir. Babar Azam may make it into the side on the strength of his half-century on debut against West Indies, failing which Mohammad Rizwan could be in store for a debut.
Pakistan(possible): 1 Sami Aslam, 2 Azhar Ali, 3 Asad Shafiq, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq, 6 Babar Azam/Mohammad Rizwan, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 8 Wahab Riaz, 9 Yasir Shah, 10 Mohammad Amir, 11 Sohail Khan
Pitch and conditions
The Hagley Oval surface has generally been spicy on the first three mornings, before flattening out towards the end of the day, and the Test. Rain is forecast for Thursday and Friday, but it is expected to clear by the weekend.
Stats and trivia
- Both Misbah and Alastair Cook have 24 Test victories as captain, making them the most successful leaders still active in the game. Both men have the chance to edge ahead, with England's match with India also starting on Thursday
- The Christchurch Test is Williamson's first as captain, at home. He has begun his leadership career with two victories, one draw and three losses
- New Zealand have not beaten Pakistan in a series since 1985. In 53 Tests between the teams, New Zealand have won just eight matches; Pakistan have won 24.
"Home advantage is a good thing, I think, but it provides opportunities for both sides, and a side like Pakistan who have toured well for a while now will know that. They'll expect their seamers to do well."
"We need to make sure that we bat with discipline and put good scores on the board. Our bowling is very much capable of performing well in any sort of conditions."
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