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Pakistan take on New Zealand in does-matter series in last lap of ODI WC preparations

New Zealand are still without some of their regulars, while Pakistan have some big issues to address even though it's the format they are the most consistent in

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Tom Latham and Babar Azam will face off over five ODIs now  •  AFP/Getty Images

Tom Latham and Babar Azam will face off over five ODIs now  •  AFP/Getty Images

When Pakistan cricket fans urged the side to experiment during the T20I series because it "doesn't matter", they meant something along the lines of "it doesn't matter because New Zealand are missing most of their first-choice players, and Pakistan have all of theirs available; so go out, have fun and take risks - the T20 World Cup is 18 months away, the scoreline is immaterial".
But New Zealand clawed back from a 2-0 deficit to get one hand on the trophy after Mark Chapman's heroic exploits earlier in the week, and Pakistan are beginning to find out that there's nothing in their cricket that "doesn't matter". The criticism in the inquest that followed - both from the fans and the media - wasn't really too extreme, as it can be. After all, when a side that played the T20 World Cup final just five months prior follows up a series loss to Afghanistan with a split series against New Zealand, who offloaded most of their best players in India en route Pakistan, it must mean something.
But there's little time for Pakistan to worry about that, or indeed for New Zealand to exult in their feats of the past ten days. For the five games coming up in the 50-over format really do matter, offering some of the last real-match practice ahead of the ODI World Cup in the autumn. New Zealand, again, are without some of the players they will have at their disposal for the World Cup, and so have another opportunity to test their bench strength. But with Kane Williamson a high-profile doubt for that tournament, finding someone who can somewhat adequately fill those huge boots might represent priority number one.

Lack of ODI time a worry for Pakistan

For Pakistan, simply the opportunity to play a bit more ODI cricket against a quality side is welcome. Since the end of the last World Cup, Babar Azam's side has played just 23 ODIs; they played 82 in the preceding World Cup cycle. The last time Pakistan took part in fewer ODIs between two World Cups was the 1979-1983 cycle, and even that included 25 games. Some of that has to do with the postponements and cancellations the Covid-19 pandemic forced, but ODI cricket's gentle decline from relevance appears to have hit Pakistan's scheduling especially hard. Even the games they have played haven't often come against the highest class of opposition; they include six against Netherlands and Zimbabwe, a further three against West Indies during the off-season in Multan, and another three against a completely second-string England side.
But that doesn't mean this is a weak ODI side; if anything, Pakistan have greater role clarity and offer more consistency in this format than any other. They won a home series against the No. 1 ranked Australia a little over a year ago, boast a top three that could hold its own against any in world cricket, and eye-watering depth in the pace-bowling attack. There's quality in the legspin department thanks to Shadab Khan - and recently even Usama Mir - while Mohammad Nawaz's utility to the side, particularly as a lower-order batter, has grown. They were within one win of rising to the top of the ODI rankings just three months ago, but ended up falling short when New Zealand launched a comeback to take that series 2-1.
That remains one of just two series Pakistan have lost in the World Cup cycle, but there remain issues to address. Pakistan are still trying to find a way of sorting out a suspect middle order to balance the burden of run-scoring more evenly through the team; in the period between the two World Cups, no team has relied on its top three more than Pakistan. Haris Sohail was brought back in from the cold to help alleviate that problem, while Agha Salman offers potential of providing some of that stability. Pakistan will hope Mohammad Rizwan can begin taking to this format with the same adroitness as he has the other two formats, and want allrounders Nawaz, Faheem Ashraf and Shadab to fill in some of the gaps.

New Zealand's chance to lock World Cup contenders

It might appear New Zealand are in a better space with much less pressure and fewer expectations, but this close to a World Cup, any team would wish to have its full squad available. A stronger New Zealand side, after all, did walk away with the series trophy in Pakistan three months ago, and doubling up on that would bring calm to a side that has been extremely dominant this cycle at home, but crumbled frequently against stronger opposition away.
That win in Pakistan is something of an outlier; every other New Zealand series win this cycle has either come in New Zealand, or against Ireland, Scotland and - relatively more notably - West Indies. While home form, which includes two series wins against India, is nothing to be sneezed at, it will bear little relevance to the World Cup in India itself. When New Zealand visited India immediately after that Pakistan triumph, they were swept aside 3-0 relatively comfortably.
But New Zealand will be encouraged by how well some of the reserve players held up against Pakistan in the T20I series. This close to a World Cup, the incentive to hit another level and book a spot at that tournament will be high. There was little in Chapman's recent T20 matches to suggest the quality he displayed in Pakistan, and he was instantly rewarded with an ODI berth. That puts him in immediate contention for the World Cup, and if Chad Bowes or Rachin Ravindra - who have showed flashes of form in the T20Is - can replicate their performances, these ODIs may offer New Zealand a lot more cover for their bench over the coming months.
New Zealand may have a lot of players in India at present, but even the ones here will fancy a trip across the border in six months. The T20I series may have been shared and will soon be forgotten, but you won't catch too many claiming this ODI series doesn't matter either.

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