Cricket: Forget ul-Haq, Black Caps should be very Afridi

By Andrew Alderson

Pakistan skipper Shahid Afridi shapes as the danger for New Zealand in the key group match on Tuesday night.

Barring Pakistan's blip against Canada this week, where they successfully defended 184, they are blessed with a wealth of natural skill and gutsy application, especially among senior players - and especially Afridi.

He's been the individual star, dwarfing other wicket-takers in the competition with 14 at 5.21 and a strike rate of a wicket every 12 balls.

The control of his awkward leg spinners leaves audiences in awe and he does love a crowd. His variety is impressive, sending down a mixture of staple 85-95km/h leg breaks, mixed with the odd googly, slider and 130km/h faster ball.

Complementing Afridi has been Misbah ul-Haq, his able deputy, batting at five. In eight innings this year, he averages 64.67 and has not been out for less than 25. His cheap wicket would be a New Zealand treasure.

That pair is matched by the unpredictable Akmal brothers (Kamran and Umar) and Shoaib Akhtar mixed with the reliable Younis Khan, Abdul Razzaq and Umar Gul.

Pakistan are ranked only one place ahead of New Zealand in the one-day international rankings but they are far hotter favourites than that heading into Tuesday's day-night match in the hills of the Sri Lankan hinterland at Pallekele.

When the two teams met in the six-match series this summer, the visitors won 3-2 with one game abandoned. That might seem tight but after Pakistan's first-match slump, they turned the series around to lead 3-1 into a dead rubber in Auckland where New Zealand shone courtesy of a Jesse Ryder century.

A number of factors have swung into Pakistan's favour since. They are playing all their group matches in Sri Lanka; their line-up is relatively settled and they are a tight group with something to prove after last year's spot-fixing controversy.

Pakistan was dropped as a co-host of this tournament but the compromise has been to base them in one country (Sri Lanka) - the sensible option, given the simmering political volatility in India. That means New Zealand are travelling more, even if they do live in five-star luxury during the tournament. Draining charter flights and bus travel still need to be taken into account.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing, especially compared to the Black Caps, is the consistency of selection. New Zealand experimented at will during the home series but Pakistan have kept the same top eight batsmen for their eight 50-over games this year. The exception was the one-dayer in Auckland when Misbah was rested and Asad Shafiq took his place at five. The only other players were their fast bowlers and the spinning role between Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman.

After such a tumultuous year, it is remarkable Pakistan are in this shape. They have lost three of their best players to spot-fixing convictions for at least five years and are not allowed to play international cricket in their own country because of terrorism and security threats. Yet they can still produce quality cricket.

If the Black Caps negotiate their way past this one, they'll feel they're back in with a shot at the tournament.

- Herald on Sunday

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