Updated: Dec 25, 2020
The return of Test cricket continues with the start of an intriguing series between in-form New Zealand and unpredictable Pakistan in Mount Maunganui.
The home side have been a force to be reckoned with in Tests under captain Kane Williamson and now sit second in the ICC Team Rankings, narrowly behind leaders Australia. The Black Caps have been particularly formidable at home and have won 11 out of their last 14 Tests in New Zealand. They have also not lost a Test match at home since March 2017 and have comfortably beaten the likes of India, England and Sri Lanka in this period.
Their side is driven by the consistency of Kane Williamson, Ross Taylor, Tom Latham, Henry Nicholls, and BJ Watling with the bat, along with an excellent four man seam-attack which boasts skill, pace, bounce, and variety. The emergence of Kyle Jamieson has added depth and taken pressure off the likes of Trent Boult, Tim Southee, and Neil Wagner to perform, while the excellent all-round options of Colin de Grandhomme, Mitchell Santner, and Daryll Mitchell has provided balance, both with bat and ball.
Pakistan have it all to do on his first Test assignment against an in-form and confident Black Caps outfit fresh from filleting a lacklustre West Indies. Recent history is also against the away side as not only have New Zealand won four of the five recent Tests between the sides, but they've also lost just three of their last 25 home Tests, breaking one of the most formidable home records in world cricket will be no easy task.
Unfortunately for Pakistan, they will be missing their captain and star player Babar Azam for the first Test, however they do possess an experienced and talented top six, coupled with a varied and incisive attack. Mentally unshackled from the burdens of captaincy, Azhar Ali can just bat; Babar will be hoping for a post-captaincy bounce, seventeen Test hundreds would tend to indicate Ali is not finished yet.
Three more to watch include Fawad Alam who may have an unorthodox technique similar to a certain diminutive left-hander from Guyana but he certainly has a point to prove, omitted for a decade he will be burning to make up for lost time. Another is opener Shan Masood, who may still have nightmares about James Anderson (Boult and Southee will have been watching), and also the irrepressible Mohammad Rizwan who is compelling viewing with bat or gloves. What is it about wicket-keepers being such extroverts?
The seam attack of Mohammad Abbas, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Yasir Shah, Naseem Shah, and Wahab Riaz should all enjoy conditions in New Zealand, provided they execute their plans effectively and make the best use of the conditions. They will have likely learned the do's and the don'ts with the ball, having watched the West Indies tackle the hosts recently. Furthermore, Yasir is a totally different proposition to Roston Chase, so the home may not be able to relax when he is on to bowl. Shah is a dangerous customer and should the pitches offer any encouragement, he will find it. Pakistan are expected to provide a sterner test than the West Indies but face one of the biggest challenges in world cricket at the moment – winning in New Zealand.
Watch Out For:
Since making his debut against India early this year, 6ft 8 Jamieson has been a revelation, taking 20 wickets from four Tests at just 14.55. Without possessing express pace, the 25-year-old has benefitted from an accurate line and an awkward length which has proven to be troubling for opposition batsmen, particularly in favourable home conditions. His arrival has brought extra depth to an already formidable Black Caps seam attack and he could once again prove a handful for a fragile Pakistan batting line-up.
A veteran of the game at 35, Alam’s excellent domestic form earned him a recall to the Pakistan Test side for the tour of England in the summer. He failed to make a reasonable contribution in the two matches in which he featured, however he continued to make runs elsewhere and compiled an excellent 139 in the recent tour match against New Zealand ‘A’ in Whangarei. His open stance and exaggerated back-and-across trigger movement, although unorthodox, has proven to be very effective in first-class cricket, where he boasts a superb average of 56.55 from 172 matches. With Babar Azam missing, Pakistan will hope Alam can bring his domestic runs into the Test arena.
New Zealand Team News:
The Black Caps have a relatively settled batting line-up, with Tom Blundell likely to replace Will Young and return to the top of the order. The only tricky decision is around the lower-middle order positions. New Zealand have three solid all-round options in Daryl Mitchell, Colin De Grandhomme, and Mitchell Santner to choose from, with wicket-keeper BJ Watling returning at No. 6 and the in-form Kyle Jamieson completing a four-man seam attack. Depending on conditions, captain Kane Williamson may be tempted to bring Santner in to add variety to their attack, although a preference on strengthening the batting could lead to either Mitchell or De Grandhomme getting the nod.
T. Latham, T. Blundell/W. Young, K. Williamson ©, R. Taylor, H. Nicholls, B. Watling (wk), D. Mitchell/C. De Grandhomme/M. Santner, K. Jamieson, T. Southee, N. Wagner, T. Boult
Pakistan Team News:
Babar Azam will miss the first Test after failing to recover from a thumb injury, while spare batsman Imam Ul-Haq (thumb) and all-rounder Shadab Khan (thigh) have also been ruled out. Haris Sohail is likely to be the replacement, despite youngster Imran Butt also being in the squad. Pakistan will also have a decision over whether to include an all-rounder or a specialist batsman in the middle-lower order, with Faheem Ashraf pushing hard for a spot. Fawad Alam made 139 in the recent tour match against New Zealand ‘A’ and is likely to get the nod, while stand-in captain Mohammad Rizwan could move up to No. 6. The away side have a good attack of their own, and the new ball threat of Mohammad Abbas and Shaheen Afridi is likely to be accompanied by the pace of Naseem Shah and the experienced spin of Yasir Shah.
S. Masood, Abid Ali, Azhar Ali, H. Sohail, F. Alam, M. Rizwan © (wk), F. Ashraf/I. Butt, Y. Shah, S. Afridi, M. Abbas, N. Shah