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Once again New Zealand cricket found itself embarrassed by the pitches produced for subcontinental touring teams. After the Indians glumly departed the previous year, having been reduced to rubble on one-sided green pitches, some officials and groundsmen were decent enough to offer a muted apology and set themselves the task of producing better, fairer pitches this time around. Mostly, they succeeded: the pitches were faster than 12 months before. But so were the opposition bowlers.
In both Tests New Zealand built strong positions only to see them dynamited late in the match by the rare skill of Pakistan's attack. In the First, at Hamilton, the New Zealanders ambled to 563 in their first innings but were torn apart in the second by the fast reverse swing of Mohammad Sami, and ended up grateful for a weather-assisted draw. But in the deciding Test there would be no escape. On a well-mannered pitch New Zealand again seemed safe, taking a first-innings lead of 170, but the fearsome Shoaib Akhtar then proved irresistible, bowling them out for 103. The 4-1 home win in the one-day series was small compensation. Some locals wondered what was so wrong with preparing greentops for their own medium-pacers. The victorious Pakistanis brought a new attitude and appearance of togetherness. Their coach Javed Miandad worked them very hard in training and it showed in a notable improvement in the skill and confidence of their fielding. The squad quickly formed a united front on tour - despite having flown out in the wake of a row between Miandad and the chairman of selectors, Aamir Sohail - and those close to the party commented that some of the old, disruptive seniority problems had disappeared. Inzamam-ul-Haq led a team of equals. His own fitness and form steadily improved too.
Off the field, Shoaib was their friendly public face - during the match against Auckland he joined the youngsters in their lunchtime outfield games. On it, he was brutal: he took 11 for 78 in his only Test, after six for 11 in his only previous Test innings against New Zealand, in 2002. "We don't get exposed to 150kph in-swingers that often," said Stephen Fleming later. "I don't think it was application or commitment that was missing - it came down to a skill issue." Fleming suggested hiring Wasim Akram to help his side decipher reverse swing.
Shoaib and Sami were not the only Pakistanis of disconcerting pace. In the shorter game, Abdul Razzaq scored runs at withering speed: in the third of the five one-day internationals, he blasted an unbeaten 50 from 26 balls; in the last, as Pakistan narrowly failed to chase 308, he crashed 89 from 40. This form of cricket has seen many daring and inventive big hitters, but perhaps Razzaq brought something new, adopting an open, baseball-hitter's stance, which allowed a scything rather than stroking bat, and splaying his front foot to the left to further open up his hitting range. Wherever New Zealand bowled, Razzaq smashed it. But his pyrotechnical art was not perfected until that fifth game, by which time New Zealand's tight bowling had secured the series.
Still, the Pakistanis were content. Their fresh-faced side, in which Yasir Hameed and Shabbir Ahmed were also effective, looked like an emerging force in Test cricket - if it can be kept together. New Zealand sorely missed the injured fast bowler Shane Bond, but Ian Butler's six for 46 at Wellington offered hope that one day he and Bond might become a dominating fastbowling pair. Fleming confirmed his new status as a confident strokemaker and his 192 in the first innings at Hamilton was perhaps the innings of the series. In terms of match sessions won, New Zealand probably finished ahead. They ended up disappointed, but not completely downcast.
Match reports for
Tour Match: Auckland v Pakistanis at Auckland, Dec 14-16, 2003
Tour Match: Wellington v Pakistanis at Wellington, Jan 1, 2004