Pakistan continued to show they are masters of making mountains out of molehills, but Misbah-ul-Haq's supremely paced innings and Sohail Tanvir's nerveless hitting took them to a tense win in Napier that puts them 2-1 up. New Zealand had earlier showed the benefits of stacking their side with allrounders as they recovered from an all-too-familiar top-order collapse to post a respectable total but it didn't prove enough.
On a pancake-flat track and with McLean Park's short boundaries and a quick outfield to assist them, Pakistan looked to be gliding towards victory when Misbah and Younis Khan played safety-first cricket to take them to 173 for 3 in 37 overs. With the batting Powerplay in hand, two set batsmen at the crease and a host of heavy-hitters to follow, New Zealand seemed down and out.
The first blip was the run-out of Younis who slipped when attempting to regain his ground after tipping the ball to point. The new batsman, Umar Akmal, meandered to 10 when the Powerplay was taken. As has been the case in recent matches, the Powerplay resulted in immediate wickets: Umar holed out to extra cover and Shahid Afridi was trapped in front. With Pakistan at 198 for 6, New Zealand were back in it.
The match swung again in the next over as Abdul Razzaq clubbed a mighty six, and Misbah calmly picked off two effortless, wristy boundaries as Tim Southee went for 17. New Zealand clawed back again when Hamish Bennett had Razzaq skying a catch to Vettori in the 47th over.
Twenty-four needed off the final three overs - enough time for more twists. Misbah, yet again, seemed to have sealed it when he slammed Scott Styris beyond midwicket off the first ball of the 48th, and then followed it up with a punch past mid-on for four. No. 10 Wahab Riaz then decided to go for glory instead of turning over the strike to Misbah, and his swipe ballooned to the keeper.
Only two wickets remained, and there was a genuine threat of Pakistan being bowled out. Tanvir then showed that though his bowling isn't at the level it was before his back injury, his hitting retains the ferocity of old. He forehanded three fours in the penultimate over from Southee to sew up the victory with six balls remaining.
Tanvir may have applied the finishing touches but it was Misbah who had done the grunt work earlier on. When Pakistan were wobbling at 84 for 3, Misbah and Younis stroked the ball into the gaps for singles to keep the required rate in check. Their 89-run partnership had put Pakistan in charge, before the slew of wickets led to an exciting denouement.
It was Misbah's finest one-day effort, and his first significant contribution in the format in a long time. With 18 days to go for the World Cup, Pakistan are still without a captain, and this series hasn't made the decision easier for the selectors. Afridi was panned after the heavy defeat in the first match, then praised after his electric half-century in the Christchurch victory, and Misbah has now pushed his case with this match-winning innings.
New Zealand continue to desperately seek someone who can provide Misbah-like calmness to their famously fragile top order. Today, their stuttering batting unit squandered another chance to hit form on a placid track, with shot-selection that will leave John Wright fuming. Martin Guptill flicked to midwicket after impressing early on, Jamie How pulled imperiously but straight to deep square leg, Ross Taylor's expansive drive ended in first slip's hands, and Kane Williamson chipped the ball to long-on.
The home side had tumbled to 79 for 5 before Brendon McCullum jumpstarted the innings with a typically energetic cameo. James Franklin then led the rescue with his third half-century in four innings; after a watchful start, he cut loose in the Powerplay reeling off four boundaries in two overs. Afridi handcuffed him with a legstump line in the 44th over and had him holing out to deep fine leg.
The batting recovery was completed by Nathan McCullum, who blasted his way to his maiden one-day half-century. The highlights of his innings were a couple of high-risk paddles for four against the quicks and a murderous carve over cover for six in the penultimate over.
Franklin and the McCullum brothers helped New Zealand put on 170 in the second half of the innings despite the top-order collapse, but even that proved insufficient as Misbah continued his prolific tour.