Auckland: The first Twenty20 International between Pakistan and New Zealand here at Eden Park promises to be a riveting cricketing contest, most of the focus will be on one 23-year-old speedster Mohammad Amir.
Amir is set to complete his return to international cricket today (Friday), having undergone rehabilitation and reintegration following his arrest for spot-fixing.
Whether he still possesses the abundance of skills he used to display remains to be seen, but in his recent outings, the old magic appeared intact. There were wickets in the Bangladesh Premier League and many domestic cricket appearances, leading Waqar Younis, the Pakistan coach, to state that Amir was ready for the “challenge” of returning to the international fold.
Conditions in New Zealand usually facilitate swing and movement, and Amir will bolster a Pakistan pace attack already brimming with big names. The prominent duo of Umar Gul and Wahab Riaz apart, Pakistan’s squad also contains the likes of Anwar Ali and Aamer Yamin. The New Zealand batsmen were on a record-breaking spree against Sri Lanka, but Pakistan’s pace stock might prove harder to dismantle.
Riaz believed Amir’s introduction would challenge New Zealand further. “Amir is a great introduction to the team,” he said. “He’s getting a chance. He’s a great fast bowler – he’s proved that in the past. It’s time for him to prove here as well. And he will prove it. With him there’s less pressure on me as a bowler, because I’m getting his support. Umar Gul is back and is doing really well. It’s going to be a good combination for Pakistan.”
Amir also had a significant vote of confidence from Waqar. “It is hard to exactly tell how the whole thing is going to come up, but my experience says that he is a smart kid,” he said. “Even at the age of 18 he was smart then. He knows what he is doing and he is ready for that challenge.”
Despite its significant bowling presence, Pakistan is wary of the challenge posed by New Zealand. The home side swept Sri Lanka in a two-match T20I series 2-0, after winning the five-match One-Day International series 3-1 and the Tests 2-0. Perhaps more daunting was the manner of New Zealand’s victories: In just the final T20I in Auckland, Martin Guptill set the New Zealand record for the fastest T20I half-century off 19 balls, only for Colin Munro to shatter that 20 minutes later, getting to the mark in 14.
Ahmed Shehzad, the opening batsman, believed that despite Pakistan’s considerable bowling strength, the New Zealand batsman would hold the upper hand. “No doubt, they are playing wonderful cricket at the moment,” he said. “We are all aware of the style that they are playing is awesome to see actually, but we have to match them, and the boys are very prepared and ready to put up a good show.
“They are playing without any fear and they have no issues with their places.”
But Kane Williamson, the New Zealand captain, was wary of complacency, and was aware of the need for preparation against Pakistan’s bowlers. “We’re going to sit down and have a look at their bowlers – make sure we scout appropriately,” he said. “We’ll come up with some plans for certain players, which we think is important. We still maintain that if we focus on our skills and play our best cricket, that holds us in good stead. [But] we’ll look to do our homework.”
Amid all this is the ICC World Twenty20 2016 in India from March. Both teams will want to sort out their ideal combinations. New Zealand could hand a T20I debut to Todd Astle, the legspinner, and Mitchell Santner is likely to make way, even as Mitchell McClenaghan, Trent Boult, Matt Henry and Adam Milne vie for the three spots open to the pacemen.
For Pakistan, Amir’s likely inclusion apart, Umar Akmal’s availability – his one-match ban for a dress code violation was deferred on appeal – is also a boost.
Apart from the T20Is, the two sides will also clash in three ODIs.
New Zealand: Kane Williamson (capt), Corey Anderson, Todd Astle, Trent Boult, Grant Elliott, Martin Guptill, Matt Henry, Tom Latham, Mitchell McClenaghan, Adam Milne, Colin Munro, Luke Ronchi (wk), Mitchell Santner, Ross Taylor.
Pakistan: Shahid Afridi (capt), Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez, Sohaib Maqsood, Shoaib Malik, Umar Akmal, Iftikhar Ahmed, Imad Wasim, Anwar Ali, Aamer Yamin, Sarfraz Ahmed (wk), Wahab Riaz, Umar Gul, Mohammad Rizwan, Saad Nasim, Mohammad Amir.