RetroPreview - Destiny calling, but is it for Imran Khan or Martin Crowe?
Whoever wins this semi-final will carry with them an unshakeable belief that this year, it's meant to be
For the latest in our #RetroLive series, we rewind to March 1992 once again, this time for the first semi-final of the World Cup that year. Pakistan and New Zealand have both qualified, taking contrasting routes to the knockouts. The winner of this match is going to believe destiny is on their side in the final...
Destiny is calling at Eden Park tomorrow. The truest fairytale may be the one that's due to unfold in Sydney in two nights' time, where South Africa - out of cricket for so long - are still on course to cap their comeback to the international fold with the most remarkable achievement imaginable. But tell that to the fans of New Zealand or Pakistan, the combatants as the first World Cup semi-final gets underway in Auckland - two nations who will have every reason to believe their name is on the trophy if they can make it to Melbourne for next week's main event.
The less ambitious might suggest that New Zealand have already won the hearts and minds aspect of this World Cup. Their tactics have been a triumph - not least the befuddling ploy of opening the bowling with the spin of Dipak Patel - while their captain Martin Crowe has already been crowned as the tournament's Champion Player. His prize, a brand-new car, will be glinting from the sidelines at Eden Park, an inviting target for one of the more exuberant six-hitters on display.
And then, of course, there are the bragging rights that New Zealand have already secured over their nearest and dearest rivals. Australia may be the primary hosts of this World Cup - staging 25 matches to 14 - but they've been jettisoned from the main event already, their poise never recovering from the defeat that Crowe himself inflicted on them in the tournament opener on this same ground in February.
Crowe's pristine 100 not out in that contest contributed handsomely to his current tally of 365 runs in eight innings, and was scored from an uncompromising scoreline of 13 for 2 that had included John Wright's dismissal to the first legal delivery of the tournament. And now they've got the chance to really rub it into their trans-Tasman chums - one more victory in front of their home fans, and off New Zealand will go to the MCG with the prospect of lifting the World Cup on Australia soil, and dethroning the reigning champions in the most galling manner imaginable.
And yet, of all the teams that New Zealand should wish to face at this critical stage of the tournament, a resurgent Pakistan would be low on anyone's list.
After registering a solitary win in their first five matches of the tournament, Pakistan had needed both a victory on their own terms at Christchurch, and a favour from Australia in their own fight for survival against West Indies. That latter match began several hours later in Melbourne with both teams knowing that a semi-final slot was still in their grasp, although the Aussies would only qualify if Pakistan slipped up. Their fate was duly sealed after 45 minutes of their innings, and West Indies had only themselves to blame for failing to hunt down a middling target of 212.
What, though, to make of the manner of Pakistan's crucial win over New Zealand? On the one hand, the end of the Kiwis' unbeaten run was opportune, as it guaranteed them a home semi-final when they might have expected to face the Aussies in Sydney. On the other hand, their tactics and techniques seemed thoroughly exposed by Imran Khan's cornered tigers - not least Wasim Akram, devastating with new ball and old, and Mushtaq Ahmed, who rattled through his full ten-over allocation in one mid-innings hit for figures of 2 for 18. If Crowe's men were hiding their hands in being rolled aside for 166, they are mighty fine bluffers.
For there's something afoot in the Pakistan camp at present. Imran's rallying cry ahead of their vital victory over Australia has become the cornerstone of a resurgent campaign, and the conviction in their consecutive victories over Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand has been something to behold. Javed Miandad, rarely far from another squabble with his skipper, has doubled down to produce an extraordinary body of work - 322 runs at 53.66, with just a solitary score below 30 (in the midst of that critical escape against England at Adelaide). In victory, defeat and wash-out, he has provided the thrum of indisputable class that has first kept Pakistan's hopes flickering and, latterly, lent substance to the suspicion that they are turning the tournament their way.
One thing's for sure. Whoever wins this one will carry with them an unshakeable belief that, this year, it's meant to be.
New Zealand LWWWW (last five completed matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
Captain Crowe is the conductor of the Kiwi orchestra, but no-one has epitomised the homespun success of his squad better than the allsorts allrounder Chris Harris, whose bowling style is quite simply indefinable. Is he a seamer? Not really, a wobbly inswinger at best. Is he a spinner? Well, his wrist rolls each delivery in some intangibly awkward manner, but to say he turns it is an injustice to the breed. But does he suck life and momentum out of the middle overs, dobbling through his spells with calculated breeziness, rushing the batsmen only with the speed with which he gets through his overs? Indubitably. He's hoovered up 15 wickets at 22.93 in the tournament to date, more than any other bowler, though he went wicketless for the first time in the Pakistan group-game. Did they have the measure of him, or does he have some hidden wiles to bring to bear? One thing's for sure: Harris is the heart of New Zealand's pace-off barrage - Dibbly, Dobbly and Wobbly to their friends - and they'll need him to provide control.
If destiny really is at play for Pakistan, then how crucial a part will Imran Khan play? The skipper is coming to the culmination of his fifth World Cup campaign - only Miandad can match him there - and he's becoming ever more talismanic to his young and impressionable team. The majesty of his leonine run-up and cartwheeling delivery stride remains intact in his 40th year, though his shoulder by all accounts is hanging by a thread, even if you suspect he won't be requiring it for very much longer. But it is as a batsman that Imran would appear to be playing the most critical role in this side. He's been creeping up the order with every passing game - from 6 in the defeat against India, to 4 and 5 against South Africa and Australia, and ultimately to 3 against Sri Lanka, where his response to the early loss of Aamir Sohail was to erect a brick wall with 22 from 69 balls, and trust his talented team-mates to riff off his indomitability. It's a counter-intuitive approach to take, but in taking out the risk of dismissal at one end, he's giving licence for his young tigers to roar at the other. Can it pay off at the sharpest end of the tournament? We can but wait and see.
Wright's return to fitness after his mid-series injury problems means a probable tweak at the top of the New Zealand order, with Rod Latham likely to make way after a string of low scores - especially as Mark Greatbatch has been a revelation with 296 runs at 49.33 since getting his chance against South Africa. Wright, meanwhile, has made scores of 0, 57 and 1 - twice bowled around his legs in those single-figure outings - but his big-match experience surely counts in his favour.
New Zealand (possible): 1 John Wright, 2 Mark Greatbatch, 3 Andrew Jones, 4 Martin Crowe (capt), 5 Ken Rutherford, 6 Chris Harris, 7 Ian Smith (wk), 8 Dipak Patel, 9 Gavin Larsen, 10 Willie Watson, 11 Danny Morrison.
No great onus on Pakistan to make any tweaks to the line-up that won so handsomely in Christchurch this week, though given the knots that Mushtaq tied in the Kiwi batsmen, the inclusion of a second legspinner in Iqbal Sikander is a distinct possibility, especially given the unconventional angles of the Eden Park outfield and the need to shore up the bowling with an extra front-line option. Ijaz Ahmed is the likely man to make way. He bowled a solitary over at Christchurch, where the left-arm spin of Sohail rattled through ten cheap overs.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Aamer Sohail, 2 Rameez Raja, 3 Imran Khan (capt), 4 Javed Miandad, 5 Inzamam-ul-Haq, 6 Saleem Malik, 7 Wasim Akram, 8 Moin Khan (wk), 9 Iqbal Sikander, 10 Mushtaq Ahmed, 11 Aaqib Javed
Pitch and conditions
There are distinct rumours that a heavy thunderstorm is headed for Auckland tomorrow, with the prospect of the second innings of the match being right in the firing line. And if that is the case, then the captain that wins the toss will have no hesitation in batting first. The vagaries of the tournament's rain rules are such that, even after being bowled out for 74 at Adelaide by England, Pakistan were given a fighting chance of winning that game, thanks to the recalculation that disregard a bowling side's cheapest overs. Whatever transpires, let's hope this semi-final isn't remembered for a farcical finish…
Stats and trivia
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Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. He tweets at @miller_cricket