With the T20I leg done and dusted, the limelight now shifts to red-ball Cricket as the iconic Bay Oval in Mount Manganui prepares to host its first ever Boxing Day Test. The hosts, New Zealand, are coming off a 2-0 demolition job in the recently concluded Test series against the West Indies and they will be eager to keep things that way against a depleted Pakistan Test side. The visitors are tragedy afflicted as their newly appointed Test skipper, Babar Azam, misses out on the first Test due to a thumb injury. 

There is this daunting, almost intimidating semblance to this Blackcaps team which has had the wood over Pakistan in the recent encounters between the two sides. Since 2016, they have won four out of five games including that fabulous away series triumph in the perilous Emirati dunes. Kane Williamson’s team also boasts the best win/loss ratio in Tests since November 2016 – a staggering 5 which is more than double the number the second-ranked team India has on the list. Apart from excellent leadership and individual performances, New Zealand’s fast-bowling battery has been at the heart of their gargantuan rise in Test Cricket and continues to be a formidable group of pacemen in world Cricket. A nation with roughly 5 million inhabitants, New Zealand does a fine job in churning out world-class seamers every now and then. 

With the green tops that are usually on offer for overseas bowlers once they touch down on the Kiwi shores, it is universally agreed that much responsibility rests on their shoulders if the visiting team is to outpower the might of New Zealand Test side. Pakistan, renowned as a fast-bowling nursery, have unsurprisingly lidded one-third of their squad with different types of pacers as they look to take it to New Zealand head-on. Their bowling battery boasts a decent blend of experience and youthful exuberance. 

The talk of Pakistan's young fast-bowling pair of Naseem Shah and Shaheen Afridi spearheading their pace battalion in the series against England buzzed across the cricketing circles. Since emerging on the international scene, the pace duo has garnered some excellent repute and showcased every now and then that they can be more than a handful in bowling-friendly conditions.

Like his tall gangling frame that stretches six-and-a-half feet high, Shaheen’s stature has also been elevating in the international cricketing fraternity. The 20-year-old wears a sweet, child-like smile and has a harmless demeanor about him but hides a very adept and aggressive fast-bowler behind all this apparent meekness. Shaheen has 35 wickets to his name after 11 Test appearances and he has shot to prominence in such a short time that flattering comparisons between him and the likes of Wasim Akram have already started to be drawn. His rapid, intense upsurge to the top-draw has been so flummoxing to witness that it has left many heads turned in awe.

A classic right-arm fast bowler, Naseem stunned the world with his pace, swing, and his spirited run-up when he made his Test debut at just 16. In the seven Tests that he has played for his country, Naseem has 16 scalps, including a five-wicket haul, to his name. Not only that, but he is also the youngest bowler ever in the history of Test Cricket to take a hattrick - a remarkable feat that he achieved earlier this year against Bangladesh. Naseem is already seen as a torchbearer for the next generation of Pakistani pacers.

The two bright prospects, however, had a relatively tough time in English conditions as one’d expect from two youngsters still taking early strides in Test Cricket. Shaheen and Naseem managed to scalp 5 and 3 wickets respectively in the three-match series and will be itching to turn things around and play a heftier role towards the team’s cause. We might as well witness the duo’s coming of age in this series against New Zealand given the fair bit of exposure that they have had of overseas conditions till now. 

Apart from the young pace prodigies, Pakistan will also have the services of some of the more senior bowlers – the likes of Sohail Khan, and Mohammad Abbas. Abbas took ten wickets in Pakistan's two-Test series against England in May and June 2018 and was named the player of the series. In October 2018, in the series against Australia, he took his 50th wicket in his tenth Test match. With that, he became the joint-quickest fast bowler, in terms of matches played, to take 50 wickets for Pakistan in Tests. In the last Test of that series, he took his first 10-wicket haul in international Cricket with 5 wickets in each innings. Abbas was the first pace bowler to achieve this in feat in the UAE. Despite the drop in his form in the last 15 months or so, Abbas is still averaging around 21 and is 20 wickets away from the 100-wickets mark. The 30-year-old will be a major threat in Kiwi conditions and will have a trick or two up his sleeve to make the Kookaburras dance around.

Contrarily, on the other side of the coin, New Zealand have got a blockbusting bowling battery that shows off immaculate class and an aura of grandeur. They have amongst them, as opined by the legendary Sir Richard Hadlee, the best new-ball pair in New Zealand’s long cricketing history. Trent Boult and Tim Southee are amongst the finest pacers in world Cricket, at the moment. Over the last few years, they have operated rather as silent assassins which is probably a Kiwi trait in Cricket - to be unassuming and more behind the scenes than the others. Their numbers, however, have been phenomenal to say the least. 

The duo’s ability to gauge a surface quickly, thereby readjusting their pace, lengths and line with aplomb is lauded across the cricketing fraternity. There isn’t a more lethal pair of fast bowling around when there is some shape on offer for bowlers since both Southee and Boult can move it both ways, at pace. To put into perspective the damage they have inflicted with brand new red cherries, Boult and Southee have a combined total of 455 wickets when they have shared the new ball, which is third in the all-time list. The only pairs with a higher tally are James Anderson-Stuart Broad and Wasim Akram-Waqar Younis. In Tests in New Zealand, Boult and Southee shared the new ball in 29 Tests, sharing 282 wickets between them. Both of them are on the brink of reaching 300 Test wickets and easily rival some of the greatest bowling pairs in Test Cricket’s history.

If Boult and Southee’s threat was not enough to hamper an opposition, New Zealand have found in Neil Wagner a lionhearted fast bowler with a tenacious attitude. The South Africa-born seamer hailing from the same school as AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis, now plies his trade with New Zealand’s national team and has already become a central figure to their victorious Test campaign. Known for his full-throated aggression and never-say-die approach, Wagner’s meteoric rise in competitive Cricket is nothing short of a fairy tale. In recent years, he has upped the ante even more and is currently occupying the No 3 spot on ICC Test Bowlers Rankings, ahead of his bowling comrades – Boult and Southee. The 34-year-old has raced to 215 Test wickets in 50 appearances and continues to be in red-hot form in the longest format. 

As you’d expect, a head-to-head comparison between these trios of pacers cannot be reasoned. There are bulwarks of swing and seam-bowling at one end and young prodigies far from mastering the skill at the other. Not only have the Pakistan batsmen got their work cut out in front of them against such an imposing attack, but their relatively inexperienced bowling battery would also need to be at par with the Kiwis if Pakistan are to bring the hosts under pressure in any way whatsoever.