There couldn’t have been a tougher test for the Pakistan side to end the 2016 calendar year than to travel and play New Zealand and Australia on their home grounds. Ironically, it looks tougher in New Zealand than in Australia. The New Zealand team may have had a terrible tour of India where they dropped to new lows, collapsing to totals of less than 100 also.
But on home pitches, they are very strong. There, they are used to the conditions which are not much different to England. And the stadiums with low heights of stands allow the breeze to whisk through the center of the field. This allows for prodigious swing at times, even on sunny days.
Their bowlers are therefore used to the conditions and exploit it well with both the red as well as the white ball. At the moment, Pakistan will be tested with the red ball in the two tests they play. Despite a collapse in the second innings of both the first and third Tests, their Test batting line up is, nevertheless, robust.
Against West Indies, all their top six batsmen averaged 40 or higher. This includes the one Test star, Babar Azam who stood in for the ailing Younis Khan in the first Test. One stat mentioned that over the last five years their top six batsmen are collectively averaging highest among all test playing nations.
Nevertheless, what they will be facing in New Zealand will be far more threatening than what Holder & Co. hurled at them on the placed UAE pitches. With a seam attack comprising Southee, Boult and Wagner, they will come towards the Pakistani batsmen with far more variety. And if they play Anderson then that’s a fourth seamer to content with.
Pakistan team are not necessarily strong against spin as well, even though they play it better than most countries. The absence of Mitchell Santner, who has suffered a wrist fracture last week in a practice game, comes as a boost to them. In their horrible tour of India, where they were whitewashed in the Test series
0-3, it was Santner along with Boult that managed to take 10 wickets in three Tests. Stepping in for him will be the right-arm leg-spinner Inderbir Singh "Ish" Sodhi, but the Pakistani batsmen should play him well.
However, it is their batting that Pakistani bowlers should really be vary of. Kane Williamson, Martin Guptill and Ross Taylor will be a totally different kettle of fish in home conditions compared to India where they struggled to find their feet. In that series, the highest batting average was 35 and none of the specialist batsmen scored more than 200 runs.
Surprisingly, only opener Tom Latham – the least experienced of New Zealand’s batting line up – scored three half centuries; no one else managed more than one with Taylor scoring 89 runs in six innings.
At home these batsmen are far more comfortable as the pitches don’t turn that abstractly, nor does Pakistan have a spin attack that is comparable to Ashwin and Jadeja who took 41 wickets between them. In the ODIs, they were clueless against leg spinner Mishra, who took 15 wickets at less than 15 each.
But at least there, Misbah can count on Yasir Shah. He was on song against West Indian batsmen and will definitely be Pakistan’s trump card. That is if he does not get overused. I feel, Pakistan may have missed a trick by not including an off spinner. Yes, there is a challenge to replace someone like Saeed Ajmal but Pakistan must give youngsters a chance.
It could be that the strategy is to attack with pace and swing, and have Nawaz as a third spinner. Which is why they have taken Imran Khan with them. He is a swing bowler with a lesser pace than Sohail Khan, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Amir and Rahat Ali. If Pakistan continue to play Sarfraz at No.6, then they should go with three fast bowlers plus Imran Khan and Yasir Shah; that way they attack with five bowlers.
It’s the same strategy they adopted against West Indies but with Nawaz coming in at No.6. Now they would like to go in more seam and pace. Nawaz didn’t impress against the vulnerable West Indians, so it’s unlikely he will have an impact against the more versatile and more experienced Kiwi batsmen.
That would mean a longer tail. The counter to that is Nawaz didn’t score many runs and that someone like Amir has developed his batting; so has Sohail Khan. If both are played then Pakistan can bat down to No.8 with Yasir, no rabbit either.
While on bowling, it is pertinent to talk of the new hiring by PCB. They have brought in Azhar Mahmood as bowling coach, the third time they have done so. Most are questioning PCB’s decision, especially when he hasn’t delivered in the last two occasions, the second of which was his stint in the World Twenty20.
His advantage will be more in New Zealand though. He is a swing bowler who thrived in conditions which Pakistan bowlers will face in New Zealand. His role as a bowling coach will come in useful for Mickey Arthur in such conditions.
More than that Azhar has an enormous and wide experience of playing in all the world’s domestic Twenty20 leagues. He has therefore played under the best bowling coaches and with some of the top bowlers. That allows him to pass on tons of experience he has gained.
Of course, you can take a horse to water but you can’t force him to drink. Grant Flower has been the batting coach but the Pakistani batsmen have struggled in the limited formats. Likewise, we have had fitness coaches but as the cricketers have indicated, it was the training camp arranged by the army at Abbottabad that really made them fitter.
Therefore, it remains to be seen how much the Pakistani bowlers open their minds to learn from him. It also depends on how hard Azhar works with them and how inspirational he can be. It has to be seen how he performs immediately. He has of course worked with most of these bowlers in his previous stint. Therefore some tips may have been passed on by him.
Lastly, a word about the third test against West Indies. It indicated that there is a certain lack of maturity in the Pakistan team when it comes to reading the game and adjusting their technique and mindset. They were lucky that West Indies displayed the same lack of maturity in the first Test on the last day. They could have drawn that game if not for throwing their wickets away in the end; they could have even won it. That would have meant that at the end of the series they could have taken it 2-1 rather than lose it 1-2 to Pakistan or at least drawn the series. With this in mind, they should prepare themselves against New Zealand and not take it easy at any stage. •