With a win over South Africa, Pakistan have reason to hope - but they now come up against a New Zealand side that, despite being pushed hard in its last two games, pulled off close wins and are now in pole position.
It was the fightback from a similar position in 1992 that gave birth to the legend of Imran Khan and his ‘cornered tigers’. After losing to the West Indies, India and South Africa, the Imran Khan-led side went on a rampage winning all their games to lift their maiden title. Interestingly, the format of all sides playing each other was last used in 1992, and now it is back, leading sentimentalists and augury-seekers to wonder, and hope, that history can repeat.
However, the ground reality is that while Pakistan has shown glimpses of what they are capable of, they have not reached full potential yet. The win over the Proteas could be a turning point, not so much because of the win itself but because there were signs in that game that Pakistan finally has picked its best possible playing eleven – but even so, it will not be easy against a New Zealand side full of confidence.
The Black Caps, however, found over their last two hard-fought games that they have a few issues to address. They are heavily dependent on Kane Williamson, who has contributed 38.9% of the team’s runs, which is the most by a batsman from any team – which in reality means the rest of the lineup is not measuring up. Also, barring the unbeaten 137-run opening stand between Martin Guptill and Colin Munro against Sri Lanka, their first wicket partnerships have been 35, 0, 12 and 0. At an average, the Kiwi openers last 4.5 overs at the crease, which is the second lowest after West Indies (3).
Against that, the Pakistan openers Imam ul Haq and Fakhar Zaman have put on two 50-plus stands this World Cup, both coming in winning causes. In fact, when the Pakistan openers have put on more than 40 runs for the first wicket, the sides has won 12 and lost just one in 13 matches. Getting them out early will be key.
The likes of Mohammad Amir, who has rediscovered his form, and Wahab Riaz who in the win against South Africa produced a masterclass of late seam and swing, will be vital in Pakistan’s bowling department, especially against the New Zealand’s top-order (1-3). The Black Caps top order has struggled against left-arm pace in the tournament, and it will not be surprising to see the batsmen being bombarded by Amir, Wahab, and Shaheen Afridi, if he gets another game.
Amir has silenced critics who had raised concerns about his inclusion in the side – mainly because in the period from 2018 to the beginning of this tournament he had taken a mere five wickets. But he is now bowling at close to his best, is among the top wicket-takers in the tournament, and will have to come good once again if Pakistan are to get the crucial two points.
The only area where Amir falters is at the death, when defending a target – in such situations, concedes 9.2 runs per over, has an average of 27.5 and a strike-rate of 18. However, in the first innings he is a much better bowler at the death, where he has an economy rate and average of 5.7, and picks up a wicket every six deliveries.
For New Zealand, Trent Boult doubled his tally of wickets in just one match – against West Indies – but until that match, he was a bit off-colour. The bouncer was his most effective weapon, with which he picked up three wickets from 18 deliveries. Till the game against the Windies, the pacer had picked up just two wickets from 40 bouncers. His under-par striking ability has not really been exposed, though, as Lockie Ferguson with his raw pace has emerged among the tournament’s highest wicket-takers. He has bowled the third highest number of deliveries (183) at more than 140KMPH, and has picked up the most wickets (9) after Jofra Archer (12) with deliveries at this speed.
With both sides well equipped with fast bowlers, it could eventually come down to the question of which set of batsmen cope better on the day. While Pakistan have had the better opening partnerships, New Zealand’s middle-order has been much more prolific than Pakistan’s, regardless of their reliability on one man.
Rains are expected a day prior to the match, and this could also be a factor on match day. The fast bowlers can exploit the moisture on the surface, as the pitch will be under covers for the majority of the time preceding the match.
A Pakistan loss will see their last hopes dashed, but they need to look no further than their current Prime Minister for inspiration.