Pakistan hold nerve to sweep series
Following the one-sided affair on Thursday, there was little to separate the two sides tonight as Pakistan overcame a spirited New Zealand fightback to sweep the Twenty20s 2-0 at the Dubai Sports City. A half-century stand between Scott Styris and Brendon McCullum kept New Zealand in the hunt, but all along, Pakistan held a slight edge. New Zealand focussed on keeping wickets in hand, but unfortunately though, they left a little too much to do in the end as Pakistan sneaked home by seven runs and equalled the world record of seven consecutive Twenty20 wins with South Africa.
The final over had plenty of intrigue and controversy. Needing a difficult 18, a straight-driven six by Styris off Umar Gul brought the smiles back in the New Zealand dressing room. That was followed by a single, which put James Franklin on strike. Franklin went for a huge hit down to long-on where Shoaib Malik ran forward and claimed a low catch. Malik and the rest were absolutely sure about the legality of the catch and Franklin had almost made his way back to the pavilion when he was asked to stop in his tracks. The element of doubt crept in, albeit late, for the two officials who consulted with the third umpire. After a few anxious moments - television replays weren't dead accurate - Franklin was given the benefit of the doubt. That didn't wreck Pakistan's party as they conceded only singles off the next two balls.
Pakistan emerged the deserved winners because they were always one step ahead of the opposition, even when things got tight. For an injury-ravaged New Zealand, it was a good fight. One of the main reasons for New Zealand's feeble showing on Thursday was the failure of their top order to come up with something substantial. One person needed to bat through, if not a majority of the overs and it was McCullum who decided to drop anchor and show some responsibility as captain.
He had to survive a testing opening spell from the two left-armers - Mohammad Aamer and Sohail Tanvir - who kept him and his partners guessing with sharp angles across the right-handers. There was quite a bit of playing and missing early and it was a tough initiation at the top for BJ Watling, who was squared up by Tanvir's angle which took the leading edge, only to be snapped up brilliantly by Kamran Akmal, diving to his right. It was almost identical to the one that got rid of Martin Guptill yesterday.
For the second day in succession, Guptill perished after making a start, when he chopped Gul onto his stumps. The loss of those two early wickets, and soon after that of Ross Taylor, convinced McCullum to shed his aggressive instincts and look to build a partnership, with anyone who was interested in sticking around with him.
He found an able partner in Styris, the seniormost player in the side. It wasn't going to be easy against the spin of Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal, who tested them with their variations. They ran well between the wickets during their 66-run stand. Styris was the more aggressive of the pair, making room to the spinners to clear the infield. However, Pakistan's blow-hot blow-cold effort in the field made things easier for the pair. Imran Nazir had a forgettable day in the outfield, palming off a six over fine leg early in McCullum's innings and later on failing to hang on to an easier chance off Styris, which cost Pakistan a boundary. A couple of fumbles and wild throws was indicative of the pressure on the fielders as the partnership grew.
Styris' clean hitting got a little intimidating for Pakistan and they were a relieved bunch when McCullum departed, mis-hitting Ajmal to long-on in the penultimate over. That over proved to be the turning point in the chase. Aamer had leaked 15 in the 18th over but Ajmal, in contrast, conceded only five. He mixed it up well, firing it on the blockhole and teasing Styris with flight and bounce. That just added to the pressure in the final over. Pakistan had only just made enough to see them through.
The driving force behind Pakistan's win was Umar Akmal, who took Pakistan to a score very similar to what they had achieved yesterday. Pakistan's openers got off to a rousing start and after Ian Butler's quick strikes, Umar and Afridi scripted the recovery.
Afridi targeted the on side and he nearly lost his wicket while on 8 when a full-blooded pull bounced off Ross Taylor's palms at short midwicket. But he went on to give Styris the full treatment in the following over, clubbing a full toss for six over the bowler's head. But Afridi's knock was nothing more than a cameo, which ended when he heaved Nathan McCullum down to Shane Bond at deep midwicket.
Two more wickets pulled things back for New Zealand but they had no answer to Umar. He began with a crisply driven four off backward point and preferred initially to play the supporting role to Afridi. He focused on rotating the strike, but after the fall of wickets, opened out. He lofted Styris a few rows back over long-on and almost injured Geoff Allott, the former New Zealand fast bowler, who was present at the venue as New Zealand Cricket official, decked in a suit and tie. He then edged Franklin past the keeper and powered a full toss off Bond down to the backward point boundary to keep the largely partisan crowd - despite being a neutral venue - entertained.
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo