A series between the fourth and seventh-ranked Test sides in the world begins tomorrow in Abu Dhabi. Tell most people that, and their shoulders might instinctively shrug in indifference. After all, the UAE is unlikely to be the place where Test cricket makes the most persuasive case for attention. In New Zealand, we have one side whose fan base back home is neither large nor arguably the most passionate about cricket, while Pakistan play away from their home fan base altogether. This, after all, is no Big Three series, and it appears these days that if cricket takes place outside those exclusive enclaves, it might as well not happen at all.
But in truth, the Test rankings hold little meaning for both sides, given how few Tests they've been a part of this year. Put together, Kane Williamson and Sarfraz Ahmed have led their countries in all of seven Tests since 2018 began, five for Pakistan and two for the visitors. There have been four wins, two draws, and just a solitary loss combined, including home and away wins against England, and a home win for Pakistan against Australia. Simply put, these are sides who have little use for the rankings they've been assigned, which is only fair, given the neglect world cricket often condemns them to.
But as ardent supporters will need no reminding, these two sides provided arguably the most exciting series in the UAE ever since Pakistan started playing Test cricket there. A comfortable Pakistan victory in the first Test was followed by a thrilling draw in the second, where all three results seemed plausible until the final session.
The last Test saw a magnificent come-from-behind win from Brendon McCullum's side, who triggered a Pakistan collapse after the hosts stood at 285 for 3 in the first innings. It involved scoring almost 700 runs in 143 overs, and defeating Pakistan by an innings inside four days. Rarely has cricket been played at that tempo in the Emirates, not least by a touring party that had, after the first Test, looked destined for a whitewash.
Pakistan used to be impregnable in the UAE until Sri Lanka snapped the unbeaten record in October last year. A 1-0 series win over Australia last month was perhaps a sign that normal service was resuming, but it will take more than that to win over fans worried about their slide in the longest format. Pakistan will have to do without Fakhar Zaman, rested after a fine debut against Australia, and Shadab Khan, who has been carrying a slight niggle.
Predicting how New Zealand might perform is a fool's errand; you might as well be taking stabs in the dark. They last played an away Test over two years ago, with numerous changes in the squad, as well as the coaching staff, having occurred since then. It is one of the challenges both of being New Zealand as well as playing them. The Black Caps can never quite get momentum going because they wear international colours all too infrequently, while the opposition often has no idea what strategies to deploy against a unit there is scant recent data for.
Pakistan: WDLWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
New Zealand: DWWWD
In the spotlight
For Pakistan, there is little doubt most of the attention will be affixed on the unassuming shoulders of Mohammad Abbas. The medium-fast bowler had an extraordinary series against Australia last month, taking 17 wickets in two Tests. Such was the discipline and consistent menace with which he bowled that it prompted Dale Steyn, a fast bowler so far removed from Abbas they may as well be in different professions, to predict Abbas would soon be ranked atop the world rankings. Gone was the myth the UAE was only the spinners' hunting ground, blown away the perception that only an express pacer who took the pitch out of the equation would have a chance here. Abbas belongs to the school of fast bowling - call it old-fashioned, conservative, even - that believes as long as you pitch the ball on a length regularly with the slightest shape and the whiff of a plan, you will trouble batsmen. New Zealand know fully well he will provide a unique challenge in the upcoming series quite unlike anything they faced in 2014.
Neil Wagner wasn't part of the side that toured the UAE in 2014, but one can't help wonder if he isn't the ideal attritional bowler for these surfaces. His strategy, often controversial and unpopular, of bowling short and into the body for long spells might not be the most elegant, but 149 wickets in 36 matches suggests it has proved effective throughout his career. It keeps him in the game when fast bowlers who rely on the newness of the ball and the spice of the pitch are rendered ineffective, testing batsmen's reserves of concentration just as they might expect run-scoring to become easier. Pakistan have often struggled against the short ball, particularly the out-of-form Azhar Ali and the potentially psychologically scarred Imam-ul-Haq, who will be playing his first match tomorrow since a Lockie Ferguson bouncer rattled his helmet in the ODI series. He took nine wickets in two Tests when Pakistan visited New Zealand in 2016, and while these surfaces might not bounce as high as those in Christchurch and Hamilton, Wagner is skilled enough to ensure batsmen will, often literally, be on their toes when facing him.
With Fakhar Zaman not part of the side, Mohammad Hafeez will open alongside Imam. Shaheen Afridi is unlikely to make his Test debut tomorrow, leaving Mir Hamza and Hasan Ali to compete for the one remaining fast bowler's slot.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Imam-ul-Haq, 2 Mohammad Hafeez, 3 Azhar Ali, 4 Haris Sohail, 5 Babar Azam, 6, Asad Shafiq, 7 Sarfraz Ahmed (capt & wk), 8 Mir Hamza, 9 Bilal Asif, 10 Mohammad Abbas, 11 Yasir Shah
There was some doubt surrounding the fitness of Williamson, but he today said in a press conference that he would most likely lead his side out tomorrow.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Jeet Raval, 2 Tom Latham, 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Ross Taylor, 5 BJ Watling (wk), 6 Henry Nicholls, 7 Colin de Grandhomme, 8 Neil Wagner, 9 Tim Southee, 10 Trent Boult, 11 Ish Sodhi
Pitch and conditions
Clear skies across the next five days mean the rain that washed out the final ODI in Dubai should cause no problems in Abu Dhabi this week. As always in the UAE, posting a big first-innings score will be pivotal.
Stats and trivia
New Zealand have won just 10 Test matches of the 55 they have played against Pakistan. Three of those, though, have come the last three times the two have faced off.
No other player in the Pakistan squad was over 18 when Mohammad Hafeez made his Test debut in 2003. It would be another seven years before any of the current squad made their own Test debuts
"We had a great series last time we were here but that's a long time back. A lot has changed in terms of personnel since then. I think it's important that we adapt with this inexperienced side that we have come with "
Kane Williamson draws encouragement from his side's last outing here without dwelling on the past