Pakistan in New Zealand 2003-04 December 18, 2003

Stand by for fireworks

Osman Samiuddin's Pakistan perspective

You might think there are more important things in life than a New Zealand-Pakistan Test series - that full-of-surprises series across the Tasman, for example. But recent history suggests that this tour could be an explosive one, on and off the field.

Matches against New Zealand, for whatever reason, have generally failed to propel the Pakistani cricket fan much beyond a state of advanced indifference, despite the often-spectacular character of the clashes. But whatever the nature of the contests, on several occasions in the past off-field intrigue and drama - usually in the Pakistani camp - has preceded or followed a tour of New Zealand.

In 1992-93, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis first instigated a spectacular collapse as New Zealand crashed to 93 all out (chasing 127) at Hamilton, and, subsequently, the removal of Javed Miandad as captain through a wholesale revolt immediately after the tour.

A year later, as Pakistan prepared to return for a three-Test tour, Wasim himself fell victim to a mutiny in the ranks, and was replaced as captain by Salim Malik. After winning the series comfortably, thanks in no small part to stellar performances from Akram, the Pakistanis got back to the important things in life - planning revolts and changing captains. By the time they toured in 1995-96, Wasim was back in charge, and led Pakistan to a comfortable win in the only Test.

And there's more. Immediately after the last series in 2000-01, which was drawn, the captain and coach were both sacked. Shoaib Akhtar was called for throwing, and half the team came back midway through the series struggling with injuries. This time, the captaincy and the chairmanship of the Pakistan Board have both changed hands before the players embarked for this tour.

Despite the history and uncertainty, Pakistan remain upbeat about their prospects. Confidence within the camp is high. Series wins against Bangladesh, South Africa and a one-day whitewash over an undercooked New Zealand team shorn of several stars have meant that Pakistan go into the first Test with momentum, always a prerequisite for a decent performance from the visitors. Above all, Inzamam's captaincy has been a pleasant surprise, the added responsibility revealing a hitherto-unseen authoritative and tactical streak. Inzamam doesn't have Hussain's emotion or Ganguly's arrogance, but, in his own quiet way, he has managed to retain the cohesion and discipline that his predecessor as captain Rashid Latif worked so diligently to instill in the team.

The batting seems a permanent concern. But with Taufeeq Umar, Imran Farhat, and Yasir Hameed displaying growing maturity and support for Inzamam and Yousuf Youhana, the batting has shown - whisper it softly - glimpses of solidity recently. Meanwhile the development of fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed and the legspinner Danish Kaneria has added extra depth to an already dangerous bowling attack.

New Zealand at home, with something more like their first team, will provide a particularly testing examination of Pakistan's post-World Cup progress. Under Stephen Fleming's astute leadership, they have become a team difficult to beat and, Australia apart, have been the most innovative side in world cricket.

For both sides, batting will hold the key. In New Zealand, that has meant little more than finger-raising practice for the umpires, and recent history would suggest collapses on both sides. New Zealand have specialised in this: 93 all out in the Hamilton Test in 1992-93, losing nine wickets for 26 runs in 2000-01, and plummeting from 155 for 4 to 157 all out in the recent one-dayer at Lahore.

Pakistan have an impressive overall Test record against New Zealand (20 wins in 43 Tests), but their 5-0 win in the recent home one-day series will count for little when this encounter begins. With a new team taking shape and the obligatory domestic troubles in tow, Pakistan are always predictable only in their unpredictability. Inzamam will obviously go for a win, but one suspects that a 1-1 draw wouldn't upset him too much. New Zealand, with a more consistent body of recent achievement behind them, will start as narrow favourites. Whatever the result, the cricket promises enough entertainment, exhilaration and excitement for even those across the Tasman to sit up and take notice.

Osman Samiuddin is a freelance writer based in Karachi.