By Niall Anderson in Birmingham
New Zealand have failed their toughest test at the Cricket World Cup – and now two even sterner examinations await.
The Black Caps' unbeaten start to the World Cup is over, coolly dispatched by Pakistan in a six-wicket defeat in Birmingham. This time, there was no magical moment, no thrilling finish; simply a procession as Pakistan - calm and calculated - hunted down 238 with five balls to spare.
Perhaps the Caps' black magic was used to just get close, having recovered from 83-5 to reach 237-6, thanks to a record stand between Jimmy Neesham (97 not out) and Colin de Grandhomme (64). But, despite the impressive rearguard, they were always likely to be short of a truly competitive total, and after a few early wobbles, Babar Azam (101 not out) and Haris Sohail (68) made it look easy.
The superstitious may note the similarities to 1992 – where New Zealand's unbeaten run was ended by Pakistan, leading to an eventual semifinal exit against the same foe.
A semifinal berth is still a near-certainty, though another victory would lock it in for good, but New Zealand now look a bit more vulnerable as two of the title favourites loom.
Those vulnerabilities are no more present than at the top of the order, where Martin Guptill and Colin Munro failed to deliver once again.
The pair survived the opening over this time, but not much longer. Guptill made just five, chopping Mohammad Amir's first delivery into his stumps, while Munro got through to 12, before slashing Shaheen Afridi to slip.
In their (flimsy) defence, the rest of the Black Caps' top-order batsmen weren't much better. Ross Taylor received an excellent delivery from Afridi – and succumbed to an excellent diving right-handed catch from wicketkeeper Sarfaraz Ahmed – departing for three, and Tom Latham's horror World Cup with the bat continued, falling victim to the same combination for a solitary run, from 14 painful deliveries.
Afridi seemingly enjoys playing New Zealand. The 19–year-old came into the game in rough form, but rediscovered the spark which saw him take back-to-back four-wicket bags in his Player of the Series-winning display in Abu Dhabi late last year. A stunning opening spell produced figures of 7-3-11-3, with Kane Williamson having to lead another rebuild from an undesirable position. Even he was fallible though, with Shadab Khan finding the edge on 41, and reducing the Black Caps to 83-5.
With nearly half the innings remaining, New Zealand were in tatters, and only a record stand between Neesham and de Grandhomme gave them a fighting chance.
The pair played remarkably responsibly giving their big-hitting reputations, with de Grandhomme facing 50 balls in an ODI innings for the first time as he grafted a valuable 64. Neesham anchored the innings before pushing the pace late, and finished on an ODI-best 97 from 112 balls, as the pair added 132 from 129 balls.
It was New Zealand's biggest sixth-wicket stand in World Cup history – breaking the record set at the same ground a week ago, and 85 runs came off the final 10 overs to give New Zealand a marginally defendable total to bowl at.
Wickets were always going to be the only currency accepted at Edgbaston however, and although Trent Boult and Lockie Ferguson removed the Pakistan openers, the classy Babar was much harder to displace.
He wasn't chanceless – de Grandhomme's full-length dive couldn't haul in a miscued pull shot with Babar on two, and Latham put down an edge from Mitchell Santner on 38, but he timed his innings beautifully to reach his first World Cup century off 124 balls.
In between, New Zealand did manage to generate brief pressure. On a wicket offering plenty to the spin bowlers, Santner proved superbly restrictive in his first stint, generating significant turn, tempting Williamson into his first trip to the bowling crease in 12 ODIs. His stint claimed the wicket of Mohammad Hafeez, but was less dangerous against Haris and Babar, and left the nagging question lingering of whether the Black Caps had blundered in leaving out Ish Sodhi.
Needing 6.2 runs per over from their last 15, Pakistan simply dialed up the aggression when needed. 36 runs came off the following four overs, and despite Williamson bringing back his strike bowlers, Pakistan effortlessly ended the game - and New Zealand's winning streak.
AS IT HAPPENED:
The Alternative Commentary Collective are podcasting their way through the World Cup. Known for their unconventional sports analysis and off-kilter banter, the ACC have come to ask the tough questions. Here's the latest episode of 'The Agenda':
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT