It was the third T20I against New Zealand in Mount Maunganui in 2018 that signified how far Pakistan had risen from the depths of a disaster at the T20 World Cup in India two years earlier, having finished fourth out of the five teams in their group. After being told they didn't have enough power-hitters for T20Is and were just capable of beating the weaker sides - or the stronger teams only at home - Pakistan beat New Zealand in that match to complete a come-from-behind series win against a side that had just blanked them 5-0 in the ODIs. That pushed them to No. 1 in the T20I rankings, a position they would hold on to - incredulously - until as recently as earlier this year.
Fast forward to their 2020-21 tour of New Zealand, and Pakistan head to Napier for the third and final T20I of the series. But this time, the series is already gone, with the No.1 ranking having gone long before that. Pakistan are no longer at the elite table in T20I cricket, and don't look like they have a plan to get there again anytime soon. The bowlers that got them there have begun to fade away; the very term "fielding standards" sounds oxymoronic following the second T20I in Hamilton on Sunday, as Mohammad Rizwan opening the batting, to put it gently, is sub-optimal.
Of course, Babar Azam's absence leaves a chasm few sides would know how to bridge, but don't let that con you into thinking this is a series defined by an absence. Pakistan have had Azam available throughout that steady slide from No. 1; his absence has merely hastened their plunge to the depths.
None of this is New Zealand's concern, though, who barely have more people in the entire country than the number of club cricketers Pakistan possesses, and have yet engineered a way to develop a bench strength in all three formats like few sides in world cricket. If it didn't come from a self-effacing unit like New Zealand, you would think the squad they named for the first T20I in Auckland was gentle showboating. None of Kane Williamson, Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Lockie Ferguson, Kyle Jamieson and Colin Munro was playing - all absent for varying reasons, gutting both the bowling attack and the top order. Yet they reduced Pakistan down to 20 for 4 inside five overs and went on to complete a routine five-wicket win with more than an over to spare.
In the second T20I, with the big guns back, Williamson scored a half-century and Southee got four wickets, thus making the home side look even more comfortable. It is hard to see what Pakistan could do to change that in Napier, a rot that set in well before this series, well before Azam's injury and well before that extended quarantine period, which can neither be attributed to those factors nor solved in the immediacy. For now though, they must look to mount an ad hoc defence for respectability. Once this series is done, Pakistan might want to look across at New Zealand - or indeed themselves from four years ago - and come to appreciate where fresh thinking and long-term planning can get a side.
Last five completed matches, most recent first
Pakistan: LLWWW New Zealand: WWWWL
In the spotlight
New Zealand lost just the one wicket in the second T20I, and Martin Guptill will have been bitterly disappointed to miss out on a surface both Tim Seifert and Williamson appeared to find little trouble dealing with. Once regarded as the foremost power-hitter available to New Zealand following the chasm left by Brendon McCullum's retirement, Guptill has somewhat seen his importance to the side diminish, with one big-hitter after another jostling for positions in a historically competitive New Zealand team. The veteran opener has suffered something of a dip in form of late, not having caught fire either in the recent three-match series against West Indies or in the first two matches against Pakistan. But he looked good enough in a cameo in Hamilton - 21 off 11 deliveries to set the tone - to suggest he still very much belongs at this level. He will be itching to give everyone a reminder of that tomorrow.
Azam's absence means the weight placed on Shaheen Afridi's broad shoulders increases even more, and while he's done little to deserve scapegoating, he's yet to hit the levels that have turned him into an all-format starter for Pakistan. Afridi was brilliant for much of the first game, before an ordinary final over that leaked 16 ended up costing Pakistan the game. In the second, he struggled to keep New Zealand pinned in the powerplay or quiet at the death, his figures of 4-0-38-0 the second worst in his career. Afridi was still hitting his lines frequently enough to suggest he's due a star performance, one that stand-in captain Shadab Khan will be desperate to get from him on Tuesday.
New Zealand have a full-strength, well-rested squad available to them, and may well just go with the same again as they push for a clean sweep.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Tim Seifert (wk), 3 Kane Williamson (capt), 4 Devon Conway, 5 Glenn Phillips, 6 James Neesham, 7 Kyle Jamieson, 8 Ish Sodhi, 9 Scott Kuggeleijn, 10 Tim Southee, 11 Trent Boult
Given how many things need remedying for Pakistan, any number of changes are possible. They might resist an overhaul, though, if history under this management is a guide.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Haider Ali, 2 Abdullah Shafique, 3 Mohammad Hafeez, 4 Shadab Khan (capt), 5 Iftikhar Ahmed/Faheem Ashraf, 6 Khushdil Shah, 7 Imad Wasim, 8 Mohammad Rizwan/Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), 9 Wahab Riaz/Mohammad Hasnain, 10 Haris Rauf, 11 Shaheen Afridi
Pitch and conditions
Expect another surface conducive to big scores. There's a slight chance of a passing shower, but any serious threat to the contest is unlikely.
Stats and trivia
Mohammad Hafeez is 42 runs away from overtaking Shoaib Malik as Pakistan's most prolific T20I run-scorer.
In 2019 and 2020 combined, Pakistan have won seven and lost 11 T20Is. In the two full years prior, they had won 25 T20Is, losing just four.