AUCKLAND (Web Desk) - Pakistan haven t played much cricket in the month since they set off for New Zealand, but that doesn t mean this tour hasn t been among the headlines. After three weeks of acrimonious quarantine that included positive Covid test, isolation breaches, threats from New Zealand that Pakistan were on their final warning and counter-threats of Pakistan returning home anyway - the series getting off the ground at all is something of a relief. Which is nice, because in these somewhat cricket-starved times, few boards can bear an expensive cancellation - just ask Cricket South Africa. More importantly, the cricket promises to be really, really good.
Of course, Kane Williamson will be missed in the first T20I by New Zealand, still absent following the birth of his first child. In fact, there are several high-profile absentees for the hosts, with Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Kyle Jamieson and the injured Lockie Ferguson all absent from a notably inexperienced 13-man squad. That might allow Pakistan to look upon the game as an opportunity to start the tour well, though the red-hot Glenn Phillips and experienced hands of Martin Guptill and James Neesham ensure the batting line-up is not entirely wet behind the ears.
Mitchell Santner will hope for his first complete international as captain after the third T20I against the West Indies was ruined by rain. But it s the other spinner in the squad, Ish Sodhi, whose contribution may prove of greater consequence. The hosts are fresh off a clutch 2-0 T20I series win against a West Indies side that on paper appears to pack a greater threat than Pakistan, and Sodhi was pivotal to the second win. Varying his flight and pace expertly, he conceded just 26 in his four overs in a game where Southee, Santner and Neesham each went at over 12, and New Zealand themselves managed 238. One such spell in a high-scoring T20I could well turn the game around once more.
Perhaps all those absences put together don t quite make up for the extent to which Pakistan will miss Babar Azam, ruled out of all three T20Is in a huge blow for an already unfancied visiting side. Their squad has its own quota of young players, but doesn t necessarily correlate with inexperience in their case. Shaheen Afridi is an all-format world-leading bowler despite his tender years, while 22-year old stand-in captain Shadab Khan has morphed into an exciting all-rounder.
Mohammad Hasnain and Wahab Riaz should enjoy the pace and bounce Eden Park offers. Mohammad Hafeez appears to have reinvented himself more times than you might care to keep track of, and his form could be a crucial barometer for Pakistan s showing in the series. And in Haider Ali and Khushdil Shah, Pakistan possess the sort of insouciant power-hitters each elite side needs to have to be competitive at the top in the modern game.
After comments by Haider Ali that he d been told to somewhat rein in his attacking instincts, you can feel sure the closest thing to his counterpart in the New Zealand side, Glenn Phillips, will absolutely not be doing any such thing. Having decimated the West Indies with the fastest T20 hundred by a New Zealand batsman (46 balls), Phillips spoke about the joy of "producing freedom in my performance". That is the philosophy that has allowed Phillips to emerge as perhaps the most lethal attacker in New Zealand s batting line-up. Having followed up those exploits with a first-class hundred for the A side, Phillips is not going to have a shortage of confidence.
With Babar Azam forced out, Shadab Khan finds himself thrust suddenly under the microscope as his stand-in. Having shaken off a niggle of his own, he will be fit to lead the international side out for the first time in his career. That may bring about its own pressure on a tour where there s enough of it already, but the 22-year old has led Islamabad United for a couple of years now, and has that experience to draw on. It goes without saying his stint with the ball will be pivotal, but perhaps the more interesting question surrounds what position he may come out to bat after enjoying a power-hitting role in the top four with Islamabad this season. He was immensely successful at it, and should he back himself to reprise that role on Friday, watch out for an absorbing tactical battle.
With most of New Zealand s absences in the bowling department, how they line up on that front should be interesting. There could be a debut for 26-year old Otago quick Jacob Duffy, with Scott Kuggeleijn and Blair Tickner partnering.
Pakistan s biggest decision is the way they go about replacing Azam at the top of the order. Hafeez may be promoted, but with young opener Abdullah Shafique in the squad, Haider and Shafique could make for a fresh pair at the top.
Pakistan (possible): 1 Haider Ali, 2 Abdullah Shafique, 3Shadab Khan (capt), 4 Mohammad Hafeez, 5 Iftikhar Ahmed/Faheem Ashraf, 6 Khushdil Shah, 7 Mohammad Rizwan, 8 Imad Wasim, 9 Wahab Riaz, 10 Haris Rauf, 11 Shaheen Afridi.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Martin Guptill, 2 Tim Seifert, 3 Devon Conway, 4 Glenn Phillips, 5 Mark Chapman, 6 James Neesham, 7 Mitchell Santner (capt), 8 Todd Astle, 9 Ish Sodhi, 10 Scott Kuggeleijn, 11 Blair Tickner/Jacob Duffy.