Hamilton pitch holds the key
Inzamam-ul-Haq: ready for the challenge
Pakistan's batsmen will be hoping that Inzamam-ul-Haq wins the toss at Hamilton's Westpac Park for the first Test against New Zealand which starts tomorrow (2200 GMT on Thursday). Two recent matches will leave them nervous as they contemplate batting on what, at its best, can be the finest Test pitch in New Zealand.
Last year, India's total of 99 was sufficient to gain them a first-innings lead. Wet weather in the lead-up to the match prevented the groundstaff from completing their preparation of the pitch, which continued to provide alarming assistance to seam bowlers throughout the match. Pakistan have had problems at Hamilton too: in their last Test here, three seasons ago, they failed to cope with the extra bounce on the surface and were bundled out for 104 and 118. New Zealand declared at 407 for 4 to win by a whopping margin of an innings and 185 runs, their greatest margin of victory in Test cricket.
However, the pace and bounce also makes it an excellent pitch if the weather remains dry: on the last occasion Australia played there, Steve Waugh rated it one of the finest tracks outside Australia. Fine weather over the last few days has given Karl Johnson, the new groundsman, the time he needs to ensure that a quality pitch is available. Both Johnson and Stephen Fleming believe that the pitch will provide the expected early life during the first session but should then settle down to ensure an even contest.
New Zealand may have thrashed them the last time they played here, but the current Pakistan unit has a far more cohesive feel to it. This squad also has significant firepower that wasn't available last time around - Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Sami missed that Hamilton Test with injuries. With both being available this time, New Zealand's opening batsmen will await the result of the toss quite anxiously as well.
In fact, Sami had wrecked New Zealand in the first Test of that series - also his debut match - taking 5 for 36 in the second innings as New Zealand lost nine wickets for 26 runs. Shoaib and Sami will be working in tandem should Inzamam bowl first, and it promises to be one of the better shows in town since Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram bowled their side to victory here in 1993.
Speaking to the media before the match, Inzamam said that while Pakistan were confident after their easy win against New Zealand in the home series, they also realised that the team which Chris Cairns captained was without several top players. "I am hoping the momentum can continue but every match is a new one."
Fleming has said that it will come down to a battle between Pakistan's fast bowlers and New Zealand's comparatively slower medium-pace line-up. "We will have to be very disciplined. It is a battle of two very different bowling attacks." He also added that the pitch appeared a lot dryer than it was before last year's Test against India. Talking about his own fitness, Fleming said that he had recovered completely from the abdominal strain which had forced him to miss the tour of Pakistan.
New Zealand (probable): 1 Mark Richardson, 2 Lou Vincent, 3 Stephen Fleming (capt), 4 Scott Styris, 5 Craig McMillan, 6 Chris Cairns, 7 Jacob Oram, 8 Robbie Hart (wk), 9 Daniel Vettori, 10 Daryl Tuffey, 11 Ian Butler.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Taufeeq Umar, 2 Imran Farhat, 3 Yasir Hameed, 4 Inzamam-ul-Haq (capt), 5 Yousuf Youhana, 6 Younis Khan, 7 Moin Khan (wk), 8 Abdul Razzaq, 9 Danish Kaneria, 10 Shoaib Akhtar, 11 Mohammad Sami.