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Feature

New Zealand, depleted and against all logic, are in Pakistan for a clash of unequals

Under Tom Latham, they are without many of their regulars; Pakistan, by contrast, couldn't be better placed

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
13-Apr-2023
Michael Bracewell celebrates the wicket of Imam-ul-Haq, Pakistan vs New Zealand, 1st ODI, Karachi, January 9, 2023

New Zealand are without some of their key players, including Kane Williamson  •  AP

New Zealand were made to offer Pakistan a public vow of compensation in May last year in an attempt to placate their hosts - they would have to pay out of their own pockets to make up for leaving a tour of Pakistan on the day of the first match in September 2021 citing a "specific" security threat. (The amount they would pay, though, was rather non-specific, what with it being undisclosed.)
The promises kept coming. They would also invite Pakistan for a triangular T20I series as preparation for the then-upcoming T20 World Cup in Australia. And they would visit Pakistan again over the next year, not once, but twice. They would play Tests in December and ODIs in January. And then, as if these two countries were next-door neighbours, New Zealand would pop back over to Pakistan once more, to play no fewer than ten white-ball games, five in each format. Would that be okay, Mr Raja?
Ramiz Raja might be gone but, perhaps against all logic, here New Zealand are. Even though it's now mid-April, and the time of year when it becomes uncomfortably hot has just about commenced. Never mind, indeed, that it's Ramzan, pushing the start of the T20Is to 9pm local time, meaning they won't finish before midnight. Or that the series will straddle Eid, meaning Pakistan will be playing cricket while the rest of the country celebrates the end of Ramzan. And never mind that most of New Zealand's finest players are currently across the other side of the Attari-Wagah border.
Not since the side led by Jamie How in England in April 2008 has a New Zealand side arrived in another country depleted so by reasons other than injury. How was frank at the time when talking about the unavailable players as they played in the inaugural edition of this tournament you might have heard of - something called the IPL. "I think everyone wishes they were in India at some point," he had said, as if a full tour of England wasn't among the high points in New Zealand's cricketing calendar.
Tom Latham, standing in for Williamson now, was somewhat more guarded on the eve of the series in Lahore. "The preparation hasn't been ideal," he admitted. "But as international cricketers, we have to adapt as quick as we can. We've only had one training session leading into this series, but we've got to trust the work that we've done back home, even if conditions are different. We've got some young guys in the group, but we've also got some experienced heads. Guys who've played a lot of T20 cricket around the world. These guys have been picked on performances in domestic cricket in New Zealand, and it's a great opportunity for them."

Pakistan have their whole set of first-choice players

Pakistan, by contrast, could not be better placed, particularly for the T20I series. If the 2-1 loss against Afghanistan can be written off as a post-PSL blip for inexperienced players in unfamiliar conditions, there are no such issues this time. Pakistan have had a useful little break in the build-up while New Zealand were taking on Sri Lanka at the other end of the world. They will be playing in the same stadiums so many of the young players shone at in during the PSL, and they'll have the steadying hands of Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan back.
"[Sethi] has given me his backing. We try to give our best every series. I can't get a commitment in writing that I will be captain. But I try to exercise the authority I have, and maintain the standards I've set. Things go on in the background, but I don't try and look at what's being said. If I did, it would only increase the pressure"
Babar Azam on his future as Pakistan captain
There's more to that last point than just that, but with Babar confirming the two will open the batting, there's little point flogging that dead horse. Saim Ayub and Mohammad Haris will have the opportunity to put the Afghanistan series in the past; with the T20 World Cup 18 months away, Pakistan have time on their side. Ihsanullah and Zaman Khan also get another shot while Shaheen Shah Afridi returns to partner Naseem Shah and Haris Rauf, which should guarantee that Pakistan are in want of nothing in that department.
Pakistan have fast bowlers who breathe fire, and a top order adept at putting them out. It is a formula that has worked for them in the past, and while they look to fine-tune it to help them take the next step, Babar sees little reason to rip it up altogether.
"We have the strength to dominate this series," he said. "The way our youngsters have performed in the PSL, both batters and bowlers, has been extremely impressive. And our senior players like Haris [Rauf], Naseem and Shaheen are also on song. It's a nice combination we've built up. But you can't say it'll be easy. People say this is New Zealand's B team, but most of their players are seasoned players, and even their younger players have had plenty of form and experience."

The confusion around Babar Azam's captaincy

Pakistan's preparation was as uneventful as it should have been, but, true to form, they found a way to manufacture some of their own. It came, extraordinarily, from the highest cricketing office in the land, with PCB chairman Najam Sethi taking to Twitter to make a statement that was anything but an unequivocal backing of the captain. Confirming he had sought the views of the selection committee on the merits of retaining Babar, he said he would be guided by the selectors and head coach "going forward, and my decision will be subject to the success or failure of the status quo".
Sethi, a former journalist, had casually thrown in that bombshell just a day before current journalists sat down at Babar's pre-series conference, leaving the captain in the excruciatingly awkward position of defending himself while not appearing to contradict the man with the power to sack him.
"[Sethi] has given me his backing," Babar said, very much with the air of a man walking a tightrope. "We try to give our best every series. I can't get a commitment in writing that I will be captain. But I try to exercise the authority I have, and maintain the standards I've set. Things go on in the background, but I don't try and look at what's being said. If I did, it would only increase the pressure."
Pressure that Babar doesn't need any more of, and in truth, doesn't deserve. But if it offers this series the extra edge and spice it so desperately needs, the Gaddafi stadium could be in for some surprisingly entertaining Ramzan cricket.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000