With Pakistan finally showing how difficult they can be to play when they extend their T20 quality over the length of an ODI, we have a delicious series decider to savour. Pakistan applied the squeeze against New Zealand for the best part of 30 overs on Friday, something they have struggled to do in the middle overs against quality opposition. The visitors never found any momentum, and when they attempted to launch in the final overs, it was too little, too late.
The levity with which they approached yesterday's chase suggests most of the problems Pakistan have had in that department might be mental. While New Zealand didn't bowl as well up front as they had during the first ODI, Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq's shot selection was judicious, measured and sensible. They made the bowlers ineffective when the wickets needed early on didn't materialise. With the sting taken out of the attack, the pair, and then Babar Azam, calmly maneuvered the innings, extending the opening partnership to the point where Pakistan never felt an pressure whatsoever.
New Zealand, good as they have been recently, haven't played great cricket this series, and Pakistan must feel they are there for the taking Sunday. The top order shows no signs of firing yet; George Worker struggled for timing while Munro has been unable to get out of T20 mode so far. That has reduced Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor to rebuilding jobs when they could be lethal if they arrived at the crease with their side in a comfortable position. Indeed, at the moment, the visitors have much to thank Taylor's grit for, but they will need assistance from the top order if a strokemaker like him is to completely loosen up.
Pakistan, meanwhile, must feel they have been on top of New Zealand almost all series. It is one explosive burst by Trent Boult and an indifferent death-overs performance that permitted New Zealand to go into the last game 1-0 up. Shaheen Afridi has been their best bowler and looks like taking the next step in what is still the gestation phase of his cricketing evolution. Shadab Khan has been almost regimental in his middle-overs discipline, with Mohammad Hafeez a more than capable sidekick. Hasan Ali's form is a bit of a concern, as is the potential fitness of Imam-ul-Haq after a blow to the helmet on Friday, but most of the side is fit and firing, and should feel confident of mounting a stern challenge for the trophy.
(last five matches, most recent first)
Pakistan WLLLW New Zealand LWLWL
In the spotlight
Hasan Ali was arguably the best limited-overs bowler in the world last year, and the Player of the Tournament in Pakistan's run to the Champions Trophy title. Across formats, he took 63 wickets in 29 matches at 18.85, with an ODI economy rate of 5.03. For a bowler that was often on during the death overs, this was almost superhuman. This year, though, his ODI numbers are far more sobering. With 19 wickets in 14 matches, his ODI average is a hardly eye-catching 34, with his economy rate up at 5.70. Three ODIs against Zimbabwe still flatter those figures - without them, the economy rate goes up above six and the average over 40 - and thus the general trend is that of a disappointing year. Pakistan will hope it's a temporary blip for one of the country's most popular cricketers. A performance on Sunday would be a fantastic way to close up an indifferent limited-overs season with fond memories.
These are the sorts of matches that Kane Williamson should thrive upon. On track to becoming New Zealand's greatest ever batsman, his team increasingly looks up to him for a talismanic role in big games. After a couple of quiet games for the visiting skipper, the stage is set to dust off the off-season cobwebs and get a busy season going with a big score. He was majestic in an ultimately losing cause in the final T20I last week, but hasn't replicated that performance in the 50-over format yet this series. The right-hander has a fantastic ODI record against Pakistan, with an average 10 runs higher than his career average of 46.28. With Taylor in some of the best form of his career, a leading role from Williamson would go a long way towards ensuring New Zealand's grip on Pakistan extends to yet another series.
Imam is in doubt after his helmet blow against a Lockie Ferguson bouncer. With competition for places in the fast bowling ranks fierce, Hasan Ali could pay the price for his recent dip, which could bring Usman Khan into play.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Fakhar Zaman, 3 Babar Azam, 4 Shoaib Malik, 5, Mohammad Hafeez 6 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt. & wk), 7 Faheem Ashraf, 8 Imad Wasim, 9 Shadab Khan, 10 Hasan Ali/Usman Khan, 11 Shaheen Afridi
George Worker may be under pressure for his place after an indifferent first two games. Latham would be the option at the top of the order in that case, but without a solid replacement in the middle, Williamson may decide to go with an unchanged side.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Colin Munro 2 George Worker 3 Kane Williamson (capt.) 4 Ross Taylor 5 Tom Latham (wk) 6 Henry Nicholls 7 Colin de Grandhomme 8 Tim Southee 9 Trent Boult 10 Lockie Ferguson 11 Ish Sodhi
Pitch and conditions
It continues to remain hot in Dubai this time of year. Both sides have been vocal up to now of their desire to bat first, and that is likely to remain unchanged.
Stats and trivia
Williamson had three ducks to his name after his first 5 ODI innings. In 118 innings that have followed, he has been dismissed without scoring on only two occasions
Pakistan's record in bilateral series deciders since 2003 has been quite poor. In 15 series-deciding final matches, they have lost 12 and won just 3 - two against Zimbabwe and one against West Indies