Poor track record in Asia, pull outs by two of their frontline spinners due to injuries and sudden exit of their national coach who has been at the helm for over five years made New Zealand start as underdogs against Pakistan in the three match Test series in the UAE. But Kane Williamson and his men pulled off one of the stunning upsets in the history of New Zealand cricket to topple their rivals 2-1.
During both the Test wins in Abu Dhabi, New Zealand came from the brink with the fightbacks led by many of their unheralded stars. They may have been short of international experience but they rose to the occasion just when it mattered.
In the first Test, it was debutant Ajaz Patel who stole the show. Asked to chase 176, Pakistan were on course before the Mumbai-born left-arm spinner got into the act. His five wickets including the dismissal of the last man Azhar Ali - as New Zealand edged out Pakistan by just four runs- made him an instant hero. One of the top performers in the domestic Plunket Shield for the last couple of years, Ajaz had to wait to break into the national side. An injury to Mitchell Santner earned him a flight to the UAE and he now leaves its shores as one of the finds of the tour.
In the decider, it was the turn of another late bloomer - 34 year old Will Somerville to derail Pakistan's run chase. The lanky off spinner holding dual nationality decided to make the move across the big pond to New Zealand from Australia five months ago. An injury to Todd Astle just before the Test series brought him into contention. He had to carry the drinks in the first two Test matches but the trained chartered accountant had dream figures against his name on his debut picking up seven wickets.
Henry Nicholls had earned his stripes as one of the most promising batsmen, coming into the series. Two centuries against the much vaunted South African pace attack and a ton against England were proof of his rising stock. But after the series in the UAE, he can claim to be one of the best players of spin in the current New Zealand line up. His ability to play the sweep shots to perfection helped him rack up impressive scores in the series, even as the likes of Yasir Shah and Billal Asif were dictating terms.
Nicholls slammed a masterly century in the third Test sharing a 212-run stand with skipper Kane Williamson. This helped the Kiwis script yet another astounding comeback after being pushed against the rails. At 60 for 4 in the second innings and still trailing by 14 runs, the Kiwis were down and out before Nicholls and Williamson defied the Pakistan bowlers.
Even in the first Test, Nicholls along with BJ Watling did the rescue act with a hundred run partnership in the second innings, which turned the tide in New Zealand's favour. With two half centuries and a match winning ton, Nicholls finished the series with an impressive average of 57, a huge achievement for the 27-year-old whose previous experience in Asian conditions included a solitary Test match in India.
It was a satisfying series for Williamson not only as a captain but also with the bat. He justified his standing in the cricket world as one of the best players of spin. The hundred in the second innings was a masterclass on how to grind the bowling on a wearing surface against the guiles of the Yasir, one of the best spinners in the modern game. Flamboyance may not be his forte but in Asia, he averages over 50 from 17 Tests, a proof of his superb technique on slower surfaces.
Soft spoken and rarely vociferous in his interactions even with his teammates, Williamson may not come across as a strong leader. But he has been an astute skipper playing an active role in devising strategies and game plans against rival batsmen. His field placements and bowling changes were spot on especially during the closing stages of the first Test.
New Zealand had come into this series after a break of seven months from international engagements, a rarity in today's cricket. During the break, Mike Hesson, the head coach credited with the upswing in the fortunes of the Black Caps, decided to part ways citing family commitments. This was the first series for Gary Stead in charge and it was a fairytale start for the former New Zealand batsman.
After a rare triumph in Asia, the Black Caps are bracing themselves for a busy season at home which includes match ups with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh followed by a high profile series against India.