Friday, January 21, 2011

Pakistan favourites against unsettled hosts

Pakistan are in a pleasantly unfamiliar position, that of beginning a series as the favourites. In their last two one-day series, they managed to stretch far stronger opponents than New Zealand - England and South Africa - to the limit, while also dealing with an unending list of controversies on the side. This time, however, they have almost no distractions; the delay in the naming of the World Cup captain is almost a non-issue for a side that is used to anarchy. They have also managed to put the spot-fixing hearings out of their mind and, instead of making a big deal about the delay in the verdict, they have shown signs of moving on.
Misbah-ul-Haq deserves some of the credit for the newfound stability. Critics questioned the side's approach when their batsmen played for a draw in the final session of the Wellington Test, led by Misbah at his obdurate best. But the fact of the matter is that Pakistan sides of earlier vintage would invariably have gone after the target, only to collapse in a heap and concede the series lead. Pakistan can do with a dose of such calmness in the one-dayers too, yet Shahid Afridi's return to the helm of affairs will offer a counterpoint. The interplay between the two men - Misbah has been named vice-captain of the ODI side - promises to form an interesting sub-plot to this series, and the results could decide who will eventually lead Pakistan in the World Cup.
New Zealand have far bigger questions to address before they can think of the big event. They haven't won an ODI in 11 successive attempts, and John Wright knows only a radical change in approach and team combination can pull his side out of the rut. With batting in the middle overs being a major source of worry, Wright has already decided to change things around - Brendon McCullum will take guard at No. 6, breaking his successful association with Jesse Ryder at the top. Jacob Oram returns to the side, while James Franklin promises stability, so New Zealand have the pedigree to turn the corner. Will they kick the losing habit in Wellington?
Form guide

New Zealand: LLLLL
Pakistan: LWLWL
Players to watch out for …
New Zealand saw Abdul Razzaq at his menacing best in the third Twenty20, which preceded the Tests. In November last year, he smashed the South Africa attack in Abu Dhabi in one of the most stunning one-day innings of all-time. Razzaq's methods may not work too often, but when they do, they turn games in a matter of minutes. His smart assortment of legcutters and slower balls could also pose New Zealand problems on wickets that have tended to be slow and spongy in recent times.
Brendon McCullum is being sent down to No. 6, specifically to take advantage of the batting Powerplay. He has only played six of his 152 ODI innings at that position, though he has had reasonable success at Nos. 7 and 8. Like Razzaq, McCullum is an impact player, but he will go up against some of the smartest end-overs practitioners in the game, namely Umar Gul, Saeed Ajmal and the irrepressible Shoaib Akhtar.
Team news
New Zealand have announced their XI, giving seamer Hamish Bennett a game and benching Jamie How. Martin Guptill will open the innings alongside Jesse Ryder, while McCullum will resume duty behind the stumps.
New Zealand: 1 Jesse Ryder, 2 Martin Guptill, 3 Ross Taylor, 4 Scott Styris, 5 James Franklin, 6 Brendon McCullum (wk), 7 Jacob Oram, 8 Daniel Vettori (capt), 9 Nathan McCullum, 10 Tim Southee, 11 Hamish Bennett
Pakistan are yet to finalise the XI, but have announced that Kamran Akmal will be opening their innings. If Wahab Riaz continues to suffer from the flu that curtailed his participation in the second Test, Sohail Tanvir could get a chance.
Pakistan (probable): 1 Kamran Akmal (wk), 2 Mohammad Hafeez, 3 Younis Khan, 4 Misbah-ul-Haq, 5 Umar Akmal, 6 Shahid Afridi (capt), 7 Abdul Razzaq, 8 Umar Gul, 9 Abdur Rehman / Saeed Ajmal, 10 Wahab Riaz / Sohail Tanvir, 11 Shoaib Akhta

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