A resurgent New Zealand Test side is mere strides away from making it into the first ever ICC World Test Championship (WTC) Final. A 2-0 series victory against Pakistan, similar to the one over West Indies just two weeks ago, will enable the Blackcaps to get one foot into Lord’s 2021. Although the men from the subcontinent present a somewhat more tenacious challenge as opposed to their counterparts from the Caribbean, they are still hardly a match for this daunting, almost intimidating New Zealand Test team. 

Arriving at Mount Manganui as out-of-towners, Pakistan will look to buck themselves up based on their competitive performances in England, earlier this year. The Greenshirts lost that series 1-0 but numbers don’t really do justice to how mightily close they came to securing a momentous series win and how the dream was diminished in a space of one and a half sessions. With that glimmer of hope and a domineering past record in the format in the Kiwi lands, Pakistan will be buoyed to do well and get their stagnant WTC campaign rollicking along. 

The visitors are, however, tragedy afflicted as their newly appointed Test skipper, Babar Azam, misses out on the first Test due to a thumb injury. Imam-ul-Haq and Shadab Khan are also unavailable as further injury concerns loom that have already marred the team’s chances throughout the tour. Mohammad Rizwan has been handed the reins of the Test team in Babar’s absence. His match-winning knock of 89 off 59 in the 3rd T20I last week would have given him oodles of confidence as he looks to set this relatively inexperienced side on the right trajectory.

With Babar not around in that top order, there is a gaping hole in Pakistan’s batting line-up. In the likes of Azhar Ali, Haris Sohail, and Shan Masood, they do have the players who can step up to the challenge and take it head on. Azhar’s spot in the Test side had been in jeopardy for a greater chunk of last two years before he finally hit the ground running and struck a magnificent 141 in England this year. He will be crucial to Pakistan’s cause and is, by far, the most experienced campaigner in the side. 

Pakistan’s young pace prodigies, Shaheen Afridi and Naseem Shah, had a relatively tough time in English conditions as one’d expect from two youngsters still taking early strides in Test Cricket. 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. It will be Mohammad Abbas, however, who will be spearheading the attack and a lot of responsibility has to be shouldered by him as Pakistan would continually look to their bowling battery to provide that impetus in foreign bowling-friendly conditions.

Pakistan’s Expected XI: 1. Abid Ali, 2. Shan Masood, 3. Azhar Ali, 4. Fawad Alam, 5. Haris Sohail, 6. Mohammad Rizwan (c & wk), 7. Faheem Ashraf, 8. Yasir Shah, 9. Shaheen Afridi, 10. Naseem Shah, 11. Mohammad Abbas.

On the flip side of things, the hosts have settled well into their groove. Especially in Test Cricket in recent times, Kane Williamson’s team has become a force to reckon with and a menacing opposition when playing at home. New Zealand 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. They 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 and ease their way into the all-important WTC Final.

New Zealand have a full-strength squad at their disposal with the skipper back from paternity leave. The guy who replaced him for the 2nd Windies Test, Henry Nicholls, has fought his way through a lean patch to become one of New Zealand’s first-choice picks. He scored a splendid 174 in the game against West Indies and is certain to retain his spot even as Williamson returns. Ross Taylor, their third-most capped player in the format, is also back after being sidelined for the T20I series.

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. They have amongst them, as opined by the legendary Sir Richard Hadlee, the best new-ball pair in New Zealand’s long cricketing history. There isn’t a more lethal pair of fast bowling around when there is some shape on offer for bowlers since both Tim Southee and Trent Boult can move it both ways, at pace – sharing an unbelievable 455 wickets between them whenever they have opened the bowling for the Blackcaps. Neil Wagner, the full-throated aggressor who wears his heart on his sleeves and Kyle Jamieson, the tall lanky figure who blew away India earlier this year and was named man of the series against the West Indies, are also integral parts of this New Zealand bowling line. One thing is for sure – Pakistan batsman will need to bring their A-game and be at their bloody best if they are to face up to this daunting challenge that this New Zealand pace battery offers. 

New Zealand’s Expected XI: 1. Tom Latham, 2. Tom Blundell, 3. Kane Williamson (c), 4. Ross Taylor, 5. Henry Nicholls, 6. BJ Watling (wk), 7. Mitchell Santner/Daryl Mitchell, 8. Kyle Jamieson, 9. Tim Southee, 10. Niel Wagner, 11. Trent Boult.