Monday, January 22, 2018

New Zealand v Pakistan, ODI, Basin Reserve, 19 January 2018

Two ODIs at the Basin in 17 years, then two in two weeks. For the final game of their five-match series, New Zealand and Pakistan returned to the scene of the first. This match was originally scheduled for McLean Park, Napier, but moved because of the poor drainage that caused the abandonment of an ODI against Australia last season. With grounds from Whangarei to Queenstown being used for the under-19 World Cup, the Basin it was.

It is an unfortunate time for Napier to lose its status as an international venue. Attractive cricket grounds with good facilities have sprung up all over the country in recent years, making rugby grounds that cricket borrows for the summer—of which McLean Park is one—look somewhat last century.

It has been gratifying to note the admiring attention that New Zealand’s grounds have been receiving on social media. The Basin is the best of the lot when the sun shines as it did once more today (of the international venues, at least; Pukekura Park, New Plymouth is without equal as a domestic venue). There were 4,300 present, not bad for a workday (or as near as Wellington gets to one during January) and enough for the ground to appear well-populated; at the Cake Tin it would have seemed that almost no one was there.

New Zealand won all the first four matches—all with something to spare—following their clean sweep against the West Indies. As I wrote in my post about the first game, whereas in Australia such results would inflate the national ego, here we just assume that the opposition can’t be any good. The hope for this game was that it would help us better assess how good New Zealand actually are.

Kane Williamson won the toss and chose to bat. There aren’t many occasions on which New Zealand have reached 22 without Martin Guptill getting off the mark, but that was the case today. Since Colin Munro became his partner, Guptill has become the health and safety officer of the opening pair, his job to make sure that accidents are not repeated. When he did score, it was in style: a straight six that rattled the TV tower at the southern end.

Munro has become subject to the same double standard of judgement that has been applied to aggressive top order players from Milburn to McCullum. If they thump the ball to the boundary they are heroes; if it goes wrong, they are fools. Here, Munro got to 34 from 24 balls before top edging one to mid off. His timing was not the best, but once more he had got the innings off to a speedy and substantial start.

Williamson was looking comfortable when he flicked a catch to deep mid-wicket as if he had not noticed that Umar Amin was there. It was a casual, shorts-and-jandals sort of shot from a man who normally bats in a dinner jacket.

Guptill and Taylor put on 112 in 24 overs, a stately rate of progress mostly because of 19-year-old legspinner Shadab Khan, who conceded only 35 from his ten overs. Guptill reached his hundred from 125 balls. At this point my mind went back to the World Cup quarter-final two years ago when he scored 92 off the last ten overs of the innings. A total of 300 plus looked likely.

But Guptill holed out to long on from the next ball and from then on, some fine bowling, in particular by Rumman Raees and Faheem Ashraf, kept the final total down to 271. They delivered full length deliveries with precision and intelligence.

Ross Taylor also went just as he would have been expected to start blasting. De Grandhomme made 29 from 21 balls, well short of the destruction setting that is his default at these times. Nobody else lasted long enough to make a difference.

The Pakistan innings was a flame of hope that refused to be extinguished despite regular dousing. At 57 for five after 17 overs it looked all over. Matt Henry was mostly responsible. Brought in for the resting Trent Boult, he had three for nine at one point, his focused pace being too much for the Pakistan top order. Babar Azam, freshly named in the ICC’s one-day World XI, was out cheaply for the fifth time in the series. Haris Sohail and Shadab Khan maintained Pakistan’s interest in the match with a sixth-wicket stand of 105. This was the sort of intelligent retrenchment that there can be time for in 50-over cricket, but not in T20. But the departure of both left Pakistan needing 100 from the last ten with only three wickets remaining. Quite a number of people packed their bags and shuffled off at this point. When will they learn? They missed some of the most interesting cricket of the series.

Faheem Ashraf and Aamir Yamin began to find the boundary, with three sixes in their 31-run partnership in under four overs. Mohammad Nawaz took 16 from the next over, using Ferguson’s pace against him. The luck was with Pakistan, with the edge as effective as the middle of the bat, but it was no more than their refusal to submit to the odds deserved. The WASP predictor still had Pakistan’s chances of winning at 3%, but the sense in the ground was that they had the momentum. It felt closer.

Ferguson’s speed had its way in his next over by bowling Mohammad Nawaz. This left 37 needed from 23 balls and one wicket to fall, yet still Pakistan’s self-belief appeared unshaken. Three more boundaries were hit or edged before Rumman Raees holed out at mid-wicket to leave New Zealand winners by 15 runs with an over remaining.

I hope that Pakistan doesn’t over-react to the five-nil defeat. Twice in this match they fought back when many teams would have been mentally heading for the plane. There is class in the batting, even if it hid in this series. Shadab Khan has the potential to become world-class, and the attack is also talented.

There is also the issue of dumping cricketers in foreign conditions (one warm-up game before this series) and then being surprised that they take time to adjust. As cricket’s attention span grows ever shorter, tests and ODIs need to be good contests. Inadequate preparation for visiting teams makes this far less likely, and is a threat to the future of these forms. I have no idea what the answer is, though a common agreement that what warm-up games there are should be played on good pitches against decent opposition would be a start.

Today, New Zealand had just five bowlers, Munro—the notional sixth—not being called upon even though it seemed the perfect opportunity to give him a bit of experience. Having only five bowlers will cost New Zealand games—when, not if—particularly if one is a wayward speedster in the form of Lockie Ferguson. Form or fitness will expose the weakness. Unless Grant Elliott becomes five years younger, or Corey Anderson regains fitness (the former is the more likely), keeping Matt Henry in the side at the expense of a batsman (probably Henry Nicholls, who has done well in this series) would be the way to do it, though it makes the tail long.

The New Zealand public must come to terms with the reality that their one-day team is very good. So is England’s. Whoever wins the forthcoming series against England could well finish top-ranked ODI side. Prediction: the pitches will be so slow that their pace will be measured in geological eras.

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