New Zealand v Pakistan, 8th match, Champions Trophy October 24, 2006

Pitch and Fleming remain the focus



Run to me: Fleming apart, no New Zealand batsman has stepped up © Getty Images

Barring selectorial quirks, Daljit Singh would have probably kept wickets for India. Despite 87 first-class games - most of it for Bihar - and a reputation as one of the safest stumpers around, he failed to make the grade. For the last 12 years, he's carefully tended to the Punjab Cricket Association Stadium's tracks at Mohali.

Yesterday, when asked if the pitch at Mohali would provide any joy for the batsmen, unlike most others in this tournament, Daljit went down on his haunches, pulled out a screwdriver and drove it through the top surface. It went down about seven millimetres before it met with rock-like resistance. "It isn't so much how hard it is on top as how hard it is below the surface that dictates how the track will behave," he said. "I expect that there will be good bounce which will facilitate stroke-making."

Those words will come as a huge relief to batsmen who've floundered quite spectacularly for the first half of the tournament. Just what were the odds? Sample some of the totals in the ongoing Champions Trophy and you'd think the tournament was staged in wintry New Zealand: 80 and 83 for 1 (Sri Lanka v West Indies), 125 and 126 for 6 (India v England), 195 and 108 (New Zealand v South Africa), 165 and 166 for 3 (Sri Lanka v New Zealand), 169 and 170 for 4 (Australia v England).

No minnows here mind you - of course there's England, but they're still considered one of the major teams - yet it's the bowlers who've imposed themselves. In the 12 matches before today, just one team, Sri Lanka, has crossed 300, and that too against one of the lesser sides. When Polyvinyl Acetates (PVA) wins a Man-of-the-Match award (Okay, it didn't, but it should have) you know something is wrong.

Daljit's track, to the World Anti Doping Agency's great relief, won't need any chemical enhancements. The outfield might, after being bathed in dew at, if you believe Bob Woolmer, "half-past seven as normal". Basically expect normal service to resume, with big scores being chased down with ease.

Pakistan won't mind, neither will New Zealand. Both teams bat deep, both have faster bowlers who can use the bounce, both have stroke-players who can go thump, thump, thump. Yasir Arafat hasn't come here to liberate a region; he arrives on the back of a triumphant season with Sussex, helping them win the County Championship. He's nippy and can clear stadiums. The fact that he may not get a chance to play is indicative of how well Pakistan did in the first game. Understudies came to the fore in a crisis, scripting a quite romantic win.

"We have to maintain that desire, motivation and energy we had against Sri Lanka for the games against New Zealand and South Africa," said Woolmer. "The emotional high was we won. The reality is we played well. We have to maintain that through the next two matches. The determination among the boys is very high."

New Zealand are in an even tricker position. Lose and, for all practical purposes, they're out. Stephen Fleming admitted that it's taken some time to adjust to the conditions - it can't be easy to come out of seven-months' hibernation and find yourself in a Mumbai minefield. He also admitted that it would be easy to adjust to a batting pitch after experiencing two games on a two-paced one. Barring Fleming, none of the other batsmen have come up with anything sizeable.

Fleming will remember the winter day in Karachi, nearly ten years ago, when he guided his side to a seven-wicket win. He'd also know that it was the last time New Zealand beat Pakistan away from home. Statistically New Zealand don't stand a chance but, as this tournament has shown, it's the underdog that starts games as favourites. Just ask Pakistan.

New Zealand (likely): 1 Stephen Fleming (capt), 2 Lou Vincent, 3 Nathan Astle, 4 Scott Styris, 5 Hamish Marshall, 6 Jacob Oram, 7 Brendon McCullum (wk), 8 Daniel Vettori, 9 Kyle Mills, 10 Shane Bond, 11 Jeetan Patel.

Pakistan (likely) 1 Mohammad Hafeez, 2 Imran Farhat, 3 Younis Khan (capt), 4 Mohammad Yousuf, 5 Shoaib Malik, 6 Shahid Afridi, 7 Abdul Razzaq, 8 Kamran Akmal (wk), 9 Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, 10 Rao Iftikhar Anjum, 11 Umar Gul.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo

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