Impressive New Zealand seek one last hurrah in familiar Karachi before turning focus towards India
There is all to play for in the third ODI as a difficult international home season for Pakistan comes to a close
The quick turnaround times in this series haven't left much room for reflection or adaptation, but New Zealand appeared to have accustomed themselves to the Karachi surface frighteningly well. They were inserted in to bat in the first ODI and finished with a subpar total, before, on a surface that began to take turn in the cooler, drier evening, they found they had left Ish Sodhi out of the starting line-up.
Barely 36 hours after Pakistan struck the winning runs, Kane Williamson was back out at the toss, and when the coin fell his way, opted to bat first again. (Babar Azam would claim he'd have done the same thing, though the extent to which he would have changed a winning formula is uncertain.) Recognising the afternoon offered the best batting conditions all day, Williamson and Devon Conway struck up a 181-run stand, putting New Zealand so far ahead in the game the collapse they suffered at the back-end was immaterial.
With the pitch's behaviour changing, and New Zealand having brought Sodhi back in, only 13 overs would be bowled by the seamers. They exploited the early seam and swing, but once Mitchell Santner was brought in for the ninth over, seam would bowl just five more overs all innings. On a surface that was now gripping, skidding, stopping and turning, no Pakistan batter besides Babar looked truly comfortable all innings, and Pakistan were skittled out for 182. When New Zealand were on 182, they had lost just the one wicket.
This was New Zealand's most impressive ODI win since the 2019 World Cup, not just since it came against a side that was gunning for the number one ranking, but also because of where it came in a World Cup year. New Zealand's have a 17-6 win-loss record in this World Cup cycle, but many of those victories have come against much weaker sides on paper. Away wins have make that point even more starkly, their previous ODI successes out of New Zealand played out in Dublin, Edinburgh and Bridgetown. (Sydney and Cairns, on the other hand, saw them come up empty-handed.)
Karachi is a noteworthy addition to the list in a year where the World Cup will be held across the border, especially since New Zealand will take a chartered flight out to Hyderabad on Saturday to kick off a white-ball tour of India. They might find spin doesn't offer quite as much joy there - spinners in India have proved to be more expensive this World Cup cycle than any other country bar Australia - but their well-rounded ability means options with the ball should not be in short supply.
These are fairly similar sides in a number of ways. Pakistan, like New Zealand have an impressive ODI record of late, caveated by lots of home matches and less than challenging opposition for the most part. They can call upon a range of express fast bowlers - though no one has proved faster than Lockie Ferguson over these two ODIs. In an impressive start to ODI cricket, Usama Mir has shown an ability both to contain and to strike, while Mohammad Nawaz is more than capable of cancelling Santner out.
New Zealand are likely to run into just as many problems chasing on these surfaces, with a top-heavy batting line-up and a middle order that is both one-dimensional and unconvincing. Until July 2022, Pakistan and New Zealand ranked top of the list for runs scored by the top three since July 2019; less than half of both sides' ODI runs have been scored by the bottom eight (34% and 47% respectively). It was notable on Wednesday that, as the asking rate steadily climbed and wickets fell, Pakistan had no one lower down the order capable of relieving the pressure with a mood-shifting cameo. Even Agha Salman, the only top seven batter to broach a strike rate of 70, managed his 22-ball 25 with sweeps and canny placement rather than the sort of power-hitting Pakistan needed at that stage.
It makes leaving Khushdil Shah out of a squad that included a list of probables that seemed to burgeon daily during the first few days of Shahid Afridi's selectorial career all the more puzzling. Since the start of last year, the only Pakistani middle-order batter with a better strike rate than his 102.46 is the injured Shadab Khan. Khushdil's consistency while maintaining that high-risk approach is also notable; only once in those six innings has he been dismissed for fewer than 19, with his repertoire boasting two cameos that swung games around against Australia and West Indies.
But if conditions for the deciding ODI replicate those of their predecessors, the toss will invariably assume even greater importance, a point Mohammad Nawaz alluded to after Wednesday's defeat.
"You'll have seen the ball turns and bounces a lot more in the second innings," he said. "You can't use the toss as an excuse, but the behaviour of the pitch changed considerably. The toss plays a role."
Pakistan will hope they can glean as much out of that defeat as New Zealand did theirs as a difficult international home season finally draws to a close.
New Zealand, meanwhile, might just be getting started . After one more tilt on a Karachi ground they seem to have become fairly familiar with, they will turn their attentions to India, a place their attentions may well remain all the way through to November.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000