• 20 Jan - 26 Jan, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Sports

Upon their arrival in serene New Zealand Shaheen Afridi's T20 side experienced a unique introduction as they were greeted with a traditional welcoming ceremony. Images from this occasion depicted a scene of mutual respect and familiarity between the two teams built over a span of 22 matches in the last 14 months. The recently appointed captain of the Pakistan T20I team continued to foster an atmosphere of respect and honour, not only for his predecessor but also for his vice-captain, during the pre-match press conference. He acknowledged Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan as "the best opening pair" for Pakistan, simultaneously indicating that the team remains open to adjustments. The captain suggested that Pakistan is still in the process of determining their optimal combination in preparation for this year's T20 World Cup in U.S and West Indies.

An Apprentice in the Limelight
The partnership between Babar and Rizwan in T20s has been a topic of intense discussion among followers of Pakistan cricket. The central question revolves around whether the substantial number of runs they accumulate at the top can offset a strike rate that falls slightly short of the explosiveness demanded by modern T20 cricket. This debate has gained momentum with the emergence of two dynamic hitters, Saim Ayub and Mohammad Haris, who present alternatives for the opening pair. Although Haris is not part of the current series, Ayub will play a significant role, possibly partnering with Rizwan as an opener. Ayub’s notable performance in the CPL last year, where he was part of the victorious Guyana Amazon Warriors, adds to the intrigue. In conditions resembling those of the upcoming World Cup, Saim Ayub’s pinch hitting, with nine international outings to his name, it appears that Pakistan is ready to fully invest in Ayub's promising potential.

Methodical Approach
Shaheen emphasised, Babar playing one down didn’t mean a demotion, he further added, "I don't think Babar's form is bad. He's the best, and he's scored so many runs I don't even know anymore. A few innings make no difference. As a player and a captain, he's performed well for Pakistan. He's always our best player." Afridi highlighted the matches leading up to the World Cup as a crucial period for evaluating the team's combination. Looking ahead to the England tour, he anticipated that the team would have a clearer understanding of the best playing XI and their respective roles. Shaheen acknowledged the possibility of changes, but by the time the squad heads to England, the aim is to have a well-defined and optimal lineup.

The Prologue to T20 World Cup
New Zealand and Pakistan find themselves in an ideal situation for gearing up towards the T20 World Cup, which is just under six months away. The teams that reached the finals in 2021 and 2022, albeit as runners-up, will engage in a five-match series. This tour provides an excellent opportunity for both teams to test and refine new strategies, as well as assess the effectiveness of existing ones.

One-fourth of ‘Fab Four’
Kane Williamson, who was among the last captains handling all formats, stepped down from the Test captaincy, a move that appeared peculiar given his exceptional performance in that format. However, from a strategic perspective, it aligns perfectly. Williamson has retained captaincy in the formats offering him the opportunity to clinch a World Cup victory, an achievement he has come remarkably close to. Williamson is committed to participating in the upcoming series as he recognises the importance of gaining match practice and form. The white-ball captain for New Zealand has not played any T20s since last year, making this series particularly crucial for him.

Kiwis’ Pace Battery
With Trent Boult fulfilling his franchise commitments, New Zealand is actively searching for fast bowlers to lead their attack, focusing on both, immediate needs and future prospects. Matt Henry, who performed exceptionally well in the ODI World Cup, is being looked at to replicate that form in T20Is. Adam Milne, another experienced player in the squad, aims to make up for missing the last T20 World Cup due to injury. Whereas, Ben Sears is more of a long-term investment. New Zealand has another T20I series against Australia next month, providing an opportunity to finalise their bowling options.

Shaheen Migrates to Unchartered Territory
Another noteworthy aspect for Shaheen revolves around managing his own workload. The T20 captain revealed that he was absent from the third Test against Australia earlier in the month. The decision was made by the medical team who deemed the risk of injury too significant to include him in a game that held no consequence for the series. The imperative to gradually restore Shaheen to a higher level of fitness, as his pace has remained in the early 130s kph since his return from the previous knee injury, suggests that he may not participate in all five T20Is that Pakistan is scheduled to play in New Zealand.

"I do not want to miss any game, but what the body requirements is means there might be challenges. I want to play every game for my country,” the cricketer said and added, "For me this is an exciting challenge and a proud moment. It's not easy. We have a good track record against New Zealand but they're an excellent T20 side." As his face lit up at the memory, Afridi further shared, "That [the welcome] was a really good experience. We had a similar welcome at the 2018 World Cup when we came here. I wasn't in the team then, but as a touring group we really liked it. It was an awesome experience this time, too, we enjoyed it. Thank you to New Zealand Cricket and to all of New Zealand."

Afridi has not only secured a spot in the team but has become the central figure. While this prominence brings certain responsibilities, it also comes with burdens and high expectations that may feel overwhelming, particularly in the context of Pakistani cricket.

The X-Factor
The quintessential multi-purpose stadiums in New Zealand are renowned for short boundaries, presenting a unique challenge for bowlers and an exciting prospect for big-hitting batsmen. The smaller dimensions often lead to high-scoring encounters and strategic field placements. Sheer pace only would lead to quick load of runs but mixing the pace with slow and probing length will be decisive factor in this series.

About the writer
Shahzeb Ali Rizvi is a sports aficionado with a keen eye for the intricacies of cricket and football. He can be reached at [email protected]