Just like the Abu Dhabi weather, which has cooled down from the blazing 40 degrees during the Asia Cup to a relatively soothing 33°C now, the pressure on Sarfraz Ahmed and company has also eased.
After a nightmarish campaign in the continental tournament, the 'Men in Green' have bounced back with Test win over Australia and followed it up with a blanking of both Australia and New Zealand in the T20I series. Though the spoils were shared in the one-dayers with the Black Caps, Pakistan hold an edge over New Zealand in the three-match Test series, going by their current form and their familiarity with the conditions.
Pakistan will be relying yet again on their new bowling sensation Mohammad Abbas to deliver the knockout punch. The 28-year-old has taken the cricket world by storm bagging 59 wickets in his first 10 Test matches with an eye-popping bowling average of 15.64. Only three bowlers in the history of the Test cricket have a better average than him, but all of them played in the 19th century.
Abbas’ meteoric rise to the top has been attributed to his nagging line and length, a potent combination that saw him bag 17 wickets in the two-match series against Australia. Adulation and stardom was no distraction for the hard-working paceman. During the break after the Australia series, he went back to play first-class cricket and bagged 12 wickets in a Qaid-E-Azam Trophy game.
Another trump card for Pakistan is Yasir Shah. The leg-spinner made a comeback during the Australia series after a hip injury, but looked slightly off-colour, bagging just eight wickets from the two games. The other spinners in the line-up include off-spinners Bilal Asif and Mohammad Hafeez, both of whom can prove quite a handful, especially against the left-handers.
Pakistan have also included uncapped 18-year-old Shaheen Afridi to bolster their pace attack. The strapping 6'6-tall tearaway was impressive during the T20 and one-day series, and it will be interesting to see if the Pakistan think-tank will fast track the youngster to the longest format.
Despite an impressive start in his maiden Test match scoring twin fifties, Fakhar Zaman has been surprisingly left out of the squad, which means Imam ul-Haq and veteran Hafeez will open the innings. Ignored for the Asia Cup and not part of the Test squad for the last couple of series, Hafeez had been contemplating retirement.
But the 37-year-old was a last minute addition to the Test squad for the series against Australia and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands, slamming a hundred in the first Test. He has also been in roaring form in limited overs, and will start the series as one of the key batting personnel for the home team. Pressure will be on Azhar Ali, who has been struggling with his form. Known for producing big scores, the right-hander is having a lean 2018 with just two scores of over 50 this year.
New Zealand have enjoyed a long break from Test cricket since their stirring series win over England at home seven months ago, though most of their top players have since been plying their trade in global leagues all over the world, from Canada, India to the West Indies. This Test series, the first for the Kiwis away from home in two years, will be also the maiden assignment for the new coach Gary Stead, who took over the reigns from Mike Hesson. Under Hesson, New Zealand had some good results even in Asia, which included drawing their last series against Pakistan in UAE.
New Zealand, already missing their spinners Todd Astle and Mitchell Santner, are grappling with injury concerns to their batting mainstay Kane Williamson. The skipper missed the deciding one-dayer against Pakistan due to a groin injury. Williamson is considered to be the best Kiwi batsmen in these conditions and has an average of over 45 in Asia. Tom Latham, his deputy, has fond memories of the UAE, where he had hit two centuries during the last series against Pakistan.
Ross Taylor, a veteran of 85 Test matches, is the most experienced batsman in the side. He had a disappointing Test series against England, but has been in rampaging form in the ODIs, scoring two hundreds which included an unbeaten 181. Even in the UAE, he has looked in good form, slamming two half-centuries in the one-dayers. A batting slump a couple of years ago was attributed to an eye condition and following a surgery, the former New Zealand captain has looked to have regained his batting mojo.
New Zealand will be banking on their much-vaunted pace arsenal to tip the scales in their favour. Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Tim Southee will be looking to rattle the Pakistan batting with their searing pace and swing. Left-arm quick Boult, back from his paternity leave, has not lost any of the venom and blew away the Pakistan top order in the first one-dayer with a hat-trick.
After a lull in international assignments for New Zealand, things will pick up frenetic pace. This series against Pakistan will be followed by tours by Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and India, and the New Zealand selectors are planning to rotate their fast bowlers to keep them injury free till the 2019 World Cup.
New Zealand’s depleted spin stock for the series includes Mumbai-born left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel and off-spinner Will Somerville. Also fighting for a place in the playing XI will be leg spinner Ish Sodhi. If 34-year-old Somerville earns his Test cap in Abu Dhabi, he will one of the oldest debutants for New Zealand.
Pakistan are currently languishing at number seven in the ICC Test rankings and a win against fourth-placed New Zealand will improve their standings. Starting from the Asia Cup, it has been a roller coaster ride for Pakistan in the UAE and ‘home team’ will be hoping to sign off their long desert safari on a high.
Pakistan: Mohammad Hafeez, Imam-ul-Haq, Azhar Ali, Haris Sohail, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam, Sarfraz Ahmed(w/c), Bilal Asif, Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas, Mir Hamza, Saad Ali, Hasan Ali, Faheem Ashraf, Shaheen Afridi.
New Zealand: Jeet Raval, Tom Latham, Kane Williamson(c), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling(w), Colin de Grandhomme, Tim Southee, Ish Sodhi, Neil Wagner, Trent Boult, Ajaz Patel, Tom Blundell, Matt Henry, William Somerville.
Venue: Sheikh Zayed Stadium, Abu Dhabi.
Time: 10 am local | 11.30 am IST.