Pakistan’s form in the just concluded Australia Tests series give them a slight edge over a team playing after a gap of eight months in the longest format of the game. But, one mustn’t take the Kiwis lightly. Jam packed with raw talent and firepower on this tour, the visitors could pull a few surprise punches like they did in the ODIs. That notwithstanding, across formats, Pakistan have the upper-hand. In Tests the teams have met 55 times over the years with Pakistan winning 24, losing 10 and 21 games ending in draws. The last time they squared off though was at Seddon Park, Hamilton, between November 25th and 29th 2016 and New Zealand won that one by 138 runs.
The UAE, Pakistan’s cricketing ‘home’ due to security reasons is a different ball game altogether and New Zealand have lost the only Test they played here previously. While they were comprehensively beaten in the T20 series 3-0, the Black Caps came back strongly in the ODIs which finished 1-1 with the final game being washed away due to rain for only the second time in the UAE in 34 years! Now, as the two sides gear up for the three-match Test series starting at Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi, 4th-ranked New Zealand and 7th-ranked Pakistan will look to make use of the spin friendly conditions to bring about closure to a keenly fought series.
November 16th, Friday – 1st Test
Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi, 11.30am
November 24th, Saturday – 2nd Test
Dubai International Cricket Stadium, Dubai, 11.30am
December 03rd, Monday – 3rd Test
Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi, 11.30am
Pakistan have managed to claw back to some semblance of form since their early exit in the Asia Cup and have only lost a single game across formats since then in the last two months. They outplayed the Aussies last month winning by a record margin of 373 runs on the same ground. The familiar conditions that the spinners thrive on is what undid the Australians and having won the previous encounter against New Zealand in similar conditions this series should be more or less of a wrap for the Pakistanis.
Pakistan have included 18-year-old pacer Shaheen Afridi while leg-spinner Shadab Khan and swashbuckling opener Fakhar Zaman have not made the cut. Afridi has been highly impressive for Pakistan in the shorter formats of the game since making his ODI and T20I debuts this year. In five ODI this year, Shaheen Afridi has picked 12 wickets at an average of 17.58 with an impressive economy of 4.90. 20-year old all-rounder Shadab has not returned to the squad, despite being ever-present in the T20I and ODI line-ups. Zaman had struggled with a period of poor form in the shorter game for Pakistan though his 88-run knock helped his side to victory in the win against New Zealand on November 9th (Friday). Zaman’s omission is perhaps the most surprising, given that his Test debut yielded two half-centuries (94 & 66) in the last Test that Pakistan played – a thumping 373-run victory against Australia in October.
Skipper Sarfraz Ahmed was the leading run-getter for Pakistan in the series against Australia amassing 190 runs at an average of 63.33 in the couple of matches he played. Imam-ul-Haq has been in good form and with in-form veteran Mohammad Hafeez they make a great opening pair. In the middle order Azhar Ali, Haris Sohail and Babar Azam performed well against the Australians and they would go into the series with great confidence.
In the bowling department, Mohammad Abbas, Mir Hamza and Hasan Ali are the new ball bowlers. Abbas had a great series against the Aussies and with spinners Bilal Asif and Yasir Shah in the side and Hafeez too with his off-breaks they have a well balanced attack.The series against Australia allowed Mohammad Abbas and Bilal Asif gain massive recognition in red-ball cricket. While the former picked up a 4-for and a couple 5-for to end his run with 17 wickets in two games, his companion scalped a solitary five-wicket haul and finished with a tally of 9 wickets under his belt.
The duo’s pace prowess coupled with the spin dexterity of Yasir Shah could pose a mammoth threat for the Kiwis, making the trio a force to reckon with in the games to come.
New Zealand captain Kane Williamson would know that it is never easy against the Pakistanis in such conditions. Their opponents thrive in these conditions and New Zealand’s pace attack may be left with little bargain from the pitch. But given the way his side came back in the ODIs after the shocking whitewash in the T20s he would also be confident going into this game. The key to success would be long partnerships and not letting the Pakistani spinners settle in. Williamson would also expect his spinners to bowl well as they could very well decide the outcome of the game. With two good fast bowlers in his side he would least expect a pace-friendly wicket in the 1st Test Match.
In terms of their bowling Trent Boult along with Southee will have to pick early wickets. It will however depend on Ish Sodhi and Ajaz Patel who should make his debut in this game to restrict the Pakistani batsmen.
Skipper Kane Willamson is the one to watch – he averages more than 50 and has a Test tally of over 5300 runs. It becomes all the more obvious for the team and management to depend on his prowess on every single occasion. To assist the 28-year-old, would be experienced crusaders Ross Taylor and Colin de Grandhomme, whose performances would hold the key for a Kiwi upset.
Tom Latham and Jeet Raval make for a good opening pair. Raval who has been performing well is yet to convert his starts into a big score and will look to do so in these batting friendly conditions. New Zealand bat low with the likes of Tim Southee and Ish Sodhi and this will come in handy. Henry Nicholls and BJ Watling are the others to watch.
In terms of their bowling, the trio of Tim Southee, Neil Wagner, and Trent Boult would be leading the attack with each of them proficient enough in affecting dismissals without the venue and conditions being taken into consideration. Also, the presence of Matt Henry and Henry Nicholls could provide a major advantage for the Kiwis whilst plucking the rival wickets at petty totals. It will however depend on Ish Sodhi and Ajaz Patel who should make his debut in this game to restrict the Pakistani batsmen in conditions that suit their bowling styles.
Pakistan 1st & 2nd Test: Mohammad Hafeez, Imam-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Haris Sohail, Babar Azam, Saad Ali, Sarfraz Ahmed(c), Yasir Shah, Bilal Asif, Mohammad Abbas, Hasan Ali, Faheem Ashraf, Shaheen Afridi, Mir Hamza
New Zealand: Kane Williamson(c), Tom Blundell, Trent Boult, Colin de Grandhomme, Matt Henry, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, Ajaz Patel, Jeet Raval, Ish Sodhi, Tim Southee, Ross Taylor, Neil Wagner, BJ Watling, William Somerville
While New Zealand is expected to put up a stiffer challenge than the Australians for whom it was their first Test series since the infamous ball-tampering row during the Cape Town match against South Africa in March, Pakistan without doubt would start as favourites. Here’s to another round of scintillating Test cricket!
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