MOHALI // Time was when New Zealand were Pakistan’s bankers. Pakistan could be awful anywhere, anytime in the world, real no-hopers, but they would straddle up against New Zealand and turn it on and begin to look like the best side in the world.
New Zealand were half the reason, it sometimes felt, for Pakistan’s fast bowlers being as celebrated as they were, so many and so spectacular were the collapses they inflicted upon New Zealand.
In major world events especially, New Zealand were nailed on as easy group points, or readymade roll-overs in the knock-out stages. For 26 years in fact, from 1983, New Zealand lost every single one of the eight games they played against Pakistan in a World Cup or a World Twenty20. None of them were even close.
No longer though. The sides have shared their last four meetings at the two events and as they meet again in Mohali on Tuesday evening, a New Zealand loss would be considered a genuine upset.
It is not just a matter of form. But no two opponents can be as opposite in nature currently as these two. New Zealand give the impression of such thorough preparation that you could confuse them for Bob Woolmer-era South Africa.
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In the ethos that underpins the functioning of their games, too, they could hardly be anymore different. New Zealand are so efficient in squeezing the most out of their talent, not in the sense that the talent in the players is limited to begin with – not at all.
But from the limited pool of players they have available, compared to Pakistan, they draw far more efficient rewards. They turn more of their best players into very good sides. Pakistan treat their finest talent as expendable resources, complacent because they know another will come along soon enough and that if enough come together at one time, hey, they are bound to have a great side. Oh for such luxuries, New Zealand are entitled to sigh.
And that form will matter, too. New Zealand have read the pitches perfectly and dropped players, no matter their status, happily and according to team needs.
It is difficult to remember, on the other hand, a side reading a surface as wrong as Pakistan did in their last game. And there are some players, of considerable status, they should be dropping, who arguably should not even be here, but they will not. That is just not how they work.
“We look at a lot of footage and stats, and talk to a lot of people, but then ultimately you look at the surface and make your own assessment what you expect it to be,” New Zealand coach Mike Hesson said. “Thankfully, we have a lot of players who have played IPL. So, we gather all the information we can and pick up a team that suits the condition as well as the opposition.”
Hesson himself is another relevant point of reference here – low-key name, without even first-class experience but proving himself the perfect coach for New Zealand currently.
His counterpart on Tuesday is one of the greatest players the game has seen, but right now, serious questions are being asked of his coaching capabilities, specifically in limited-overs cricket.
Pakistan are standing at a familiar precipice right now. Every day, the sounds of discontent within the squad grow louder. Umar Akmal wants to bat higher. Shahid Afridi is being reminded by his board repeatedly that he must go at the end of this tournament. Shaharyar Khan, the board head, is telling fans after one defeat it is better not to expect too much from this side.
Now they have injuries to contend with. Mohammed Hafeez, who has looked in such polished form, is likely to be unavailable with a knee injury. Wahab Riaz might also miss out, though the suspicion is a knock to the head in training might have made the job of dropping him on form easier.
It is that bewitching hour, just before either total darkness descends on their campaign, or it lights up brighter than anything you have seen.
It has focused even Afridi’s mind, or at least his words. “The straightforward plan has to be to stick to basics,” he said. “You can’t rely on miracles. It doesn’t work that way. We need to cut down on our mistakes.”
It sounds almost like he is speaking New Zealandese.
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