Just before the tea interval on the third day of the first Test, played at Seddon Park, Hamilton last week, commentator Ian Smith was discussing the odds being offered by the bookies on the result. He advised punters to go for the draw, credible advice given that New Zealand had started soundly in making up the first innings deficit of 93 on a pitch that had not been giving the bowlers much help and, if anything, appeared to be getting flatter.
Three hours later Pakistan had won by ten wickets after what was, even by New Zealand standards, an Icelandic bank of a batting collapse, the top seven falling for 35 runs.
The Pakistan bowling was good, which should come as no surprise in a Test match. Their fielding was superb, which was astonishing given how slapstick-bad it was when Pakistan visited at the end of 2009. The New Zealand batsmen (in whom as I have written before, the talent of the team resides) committed collective suicide by poor shot (if they had actually tried to shoot themselves, they would have missed). This was particularly disappointing after good batting performances in the first two Tests in India recently (Ross Taylor, run out by a direct hit when responding to a call from Kane Williamson is absolved from this general criticism, but is in far from top form).
Tim McIntosh has borne the brunt of the blame. He has never looked convincing as a Test opener, but has managed to make runs just often enough to avoid the axe. Of course, most established first-class batsmen would make runs in Tests from time to time. Doing so regularly is what is difficult. The fact that there is no obvious alternative opener has helped keep McIntosh in the side too.
Naturally, the media has focused on the failings of the home team, so Pakistan has not been given the praise it deserves for producing such a convincing win despite being without at least six players who would be in its best line-up. Salman Butt and the brilliant opening bowling partnership of Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Aamer await their fate on spotfixing charges, Saeed Ajmal returned home because of his father's sudden death, wicketkeeper Zulquarnan Haider fled during the recent series against South Africa in the UAE, claiming some sort of cricketing asylum and, in the long Pakistani tradition of botched selection, Mohammad Yousef, one of the outstanding batsmen of the age, has been ignored. In all my years watching cricket no country has produced more naturally talented cricketers than Pakistan, and none has been remotely as inventive in finding ways to squander their gifts.
There is, I regret to say, a certain lack of excitement here about this series. The betting scandals, the fact that Pakistan were here this time last year and the poor showing of the home team have all contributed to this. Even those professional enthusiasts the marketing people seem unmotivated by the prospect. The series is being promoted with the least inspiring slogan in the history of advertising:
It's the last international tour for a very, very long time.which was presumably chosen just ahead of “We'll probably all be dead this time next year”.
But I'll be there, so watch this space.