Underestimate them at your peril
It's not the first time and it won't be the last. New Zealand perennially start tournaments as dark horses, who sneak a close game here and stumble by a big margin there and dangerously hover around the periphery. Sometimes they leave with a whimper - as if it was expected all along - but occasionally they summon the nasty sting, one that can upset even the mighty. This routine has become so commonplace that New Zealand pulling off surprises shouldn't come as a surprise anymore.
How they have done it is a mystery but somehow they've clung on to the tag of the underdog and, often superbly, used it to their advantage. Today they had quite a few things going against them: asked to bat first on a lively track, running into a disciplined seam attack, facing the prospect of defending a low target in the soggy dew, and having to take into account a batting-line-up that's used to chasing, and chasing big. They did well to take their time initially; and did superbly to cash in at the slog.
Unfortunately for Pakistan they ran into Stephen Fleming on the threshold of history; unfortunately they didn't have the services of Mohammad Asif - countering him on this juicy surface might have been several handfuls; and unfortunately - and this was entirely their undoing - they undid all the good work in the final overs. Younis Khan seems an inspirational captain but not giving Mohammad Hafeez a bowl, when he was arguably their best spinner in the previous game, was baffling.
Then there was the last ten overs. It's ironically that a bunch training under Waqar Younis - arguably the greatest exponent of the toe-crusher - didn't manage a single yorker in the last ten overs. It's one thing to bowl brilliantly in the first 15 overs, but to try to stick to the same formula in the end isn't exactly smart. New Zealand's batsmen simply had to wait, read the predictable length and thump. They managed 99 in the last ten. Game on.
"We can't harp on that fact," said Bob Woolmer, their coach, when asked about the bowling at the death. "Rana, Rao have played a lot of one-day cricket now; Umar Gul is coming back from injury and he has bowled really well. Razzaq is up to nearly 200 one-day internationals. We have the bowlers who can bowl, we just didn't bowl as well as we did the other night against Sri Lanka. We haven't performed as well as we should have done. New Zealand have outperformed us, they have outplayed us."
New Zealand bowled cannily, no doubt about it. They used the dew to their advantage - employing the bouncer more often - and didn't panic even when Pakistan were cruising. But they got help, large doses of it in fact. Imran Farhat must decide whether he's an opener or a crocodile hunter. He's got the shots but he's also got a fatalistic instinct that few batsmen can match. Flash for four is followed by flash to the slips. Drop him and he will flash again.
Then in walks Younis Khan at No.3, a position which he's occupied in 36 games and averages a modest 27.5. What that means is that Shoaib Malik, arguably Pakistan's best one-day batsman over the last two years, bats lower. Today he came at No.6, a position he averages 29.5. Put him at No.3 and it shoots up to 40.5. Put him at four and it's a stunning 56.11. Pakistan will need to sort out their batting order - Shahid Afridi floating doesn't seem to be the solution.
Woolmer admitted that the Afridi conundrum was causing a few headaches. "Afridi is a very fine player, unfortunately he hasn't clicked which has created a hole. Shahid Afridi has stated that he wants a regular batting place in the side. So we told him No.5 is your place, so go out and perform. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, he has got out. He doesn't want to get out, he is trying his best."
One moment, in the 49th over of the New Zealand innings, was indicative of the larger issue. Scott Styris sweeps Umar Gul to deep midwicket, Rana Naved-Ul-Hasan sees the ball bounce in front of him, spin away and cross the fence. Next ball. Scott Styris launches one to long-off, Rao runs around speedily, throws his arms in the air and latches on to a magnificent catch. Pakistan have forever been associated with being pathetic one moment and brilliant the next. But they need less of the former if they harbour hopes of staying in this tournament.
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo