Off-field events dominate build-up
Match factsFriday, January 7
Start time 11.00 (2200 GMT)
Just as two exciting Test series conclude on two different continents, New Zealand and Pakistan begin one of their own in Hamilton. But unlike the Ashes or the South Africa-India Tests which had massive build-ups, drew large audiences and captivated fans, this one is destined to be a sideshow. And that's because the eyes and ears of the cricketing world would be transfixed on an event in Doha, where the three players suspected of being involved in the spot-fixing controversy will know their fate.
As the ICC's three-man tribunal examines the charges against Salman Butt, Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif, who won Pakistan a Test on their previous tour here, the former team-mates of the tainted trio will do well to retain their focus on the action at the ground. Instability, indiscipline and allegations of corruption have done enough in recent months to deflect attention from the efforts of a Pakistan team trying to rebuild.
Under a new captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, and with a set of youngsters who've made an encouraging transition to international cricket, Pakistan punched above their weight when they held South Africa to a 0-0 draw, albeit in placid conditions, in the UAE in November. Conditions in New Zealand, traditionally favouring more swing and less palatable for batsmen, present Pakistan with a fresh challenge and an incentive, despite starting underdogs, to motivate themselves and repair some of the reputation sullied by events off the field.
New Zealand, too, come in to the series on the back of a better-than-expected performance in their Test series in India, where they were beaten 0-1 in a three-match series. Though their woeful ODI form has prompted changes at the top, with John Wright replacing Mark Greatbatch as coach, their past performance in Tests, with Brendon McCullum's success at the top of the order, the emergence of Kane Williamson and the reliability of Chris Martin, would give them plenty of hope in home conditions.
Form guide(Most recent first)
New Zealand: LDDLL
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Brendon McCullum's promotion to the opening slot yielded a double-century against India and he warmed up for this series in ideal fashion, smashing Pakistan around in the tour game to make 206. Pakistan don't have the services of Asif and Amir but Umar Gul, with his pace and ability to swing the ball, can be just as aggressive as McCullum. Who will win the battle?
Misbah-ul-Haq took over the reins of the Test side in a time of turmoil but led by example in the series against South Africa in the UAE, scoring three half-centuries in four innings to save both Tests. He led the way again with an unbeaten century in the tour match. Much will depend on him and Younis Khan, the senior members in the side, to preserve the focus on the performance on the field. They did that well in the UAE, they'll need to do it again.
Pitch and conditions
There is rain forecast for Friday, though the past few days in Hamilton have been quite warm. The possibility of overcast conditions on the opening day does provide the temptation of fielding first, but Hamilton, traditionally, has been among the better tracks for batting in the country.
"I'd like to have a little bit in it but also in the back of my mind is that if it gets really humid, the ball can swing a lot, and it has been really humid here," Karl Johnson, the curator at Seddon Park, was quoted as saying to NZPA. "I don't want the wicket to swing and have a lot of zip and movement off the track, but obviously the bowlers would like that,"
Saeed Ajmal, the offspinner, had to return home to attend his father's funeral and is likely to miss the first Test. That leaves Abdur Rehman, the left-arm spinner, as the only slow-bowling option. Sohail Tanvir, the left-arm seamer who was a late addition to the squad and picked up four wickets in the tour game, could share the new ball with Gul.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Mohammad Hafeez, 2 Taufeeq Umar, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Younis Khan, 5 Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), 6 Asad Shafiq, 7 Adnan Akmal (wk), 8 Abdur Rehman, 9 Umar Gul, 10 Sohail Tanvir, 11 Wahab Riaz.
Andy McKay, the left-arm seamer, is out due to a side strain and Daryl Tuffey has been called in to the 13-man squad. Wicketkeeper Reece Young, picked in place of Gareth Hopkins, will make his Test debut. Jesse Ryder, who didn't feature in the warm-up match, is expected to return.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Tim McIntosh, 2 Brendon McCullum, 3 Martin Guptill, 4 Ross Taylor, 5 Jesse Ryder, 6 Kane Williamson, 7 Daniel Vettori (capt), 8 Reece Young (wk), 9 Tim Southee, 10 Brent Arnel/ Daryl Tuffey, 11 Chris Martin.
Stats and trivia
New Zealand's batting average over the last two years of 31.47 is much higher than Pakistan's 26.40, but their bowling average of 44.34 is only marginally better than that of West Indies and Bangladesh.
For a comprehensive statistical preview to the Test and the series, click here.
"I think with Tim we've either done really well or we've not done well at all, so we've got to try and gain some more consistency between us."
McCullum on his opening partnership with Tim McIntosh.
"We are not thinking about what has happened in the last 12 months, we are just thinking about today and tomorrow and what is coming next. We are ready for that. We just have to forget everything else and focus on what is coming now."
Misbah-ul-Haq insists his team his focused.
Siddhartha Talya is a sub editor at Cricinfo