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Pakistan's potent bowling attack will ensure they test in-form New Zealand on their white-ball tour, writes Saj Sadiq in his latest article for Sky Sports.
By Saj Sadiq (4th January, 2018)
The signs were ominous, and the writing was on the wall: a beleaguered Pakistan appeared out of their depth after an embarrassing loss to India in their opening game of the ICC Champions Trophy.
While most observers were suggesting an early exit for Sarfraz Ahmed's men, the more charitable pundits were indicating at best an honourable semi-final loss for the men in green.
But this is the Pakistan cricket team, capable of brilliance and chaos - time has told us that it's never been wise to write them off. And so, it came to pass that after playing some scintillating cricket for four successive games, Pakistan emerged as deserving and surprising Champions Trophy victors.
The critics who had already drafted team player obituaries were sent scuppering for cover as a supremely confident Pakistan team emerged from the debris of their previous ODI losses to regain their place among the world's best.
The fairy tale - how else could one describe this remarkable re-emergence of a team in danger of not even qualifying for the Champions Trophy and the ICC World Cup in 2019? - has turned into reality as Pakistan's new-found confidence and consistency in both limited-overs formats has seen the team improve in immense proportions.
Pakistan are unbeaten since that loss to India at Edgbaston in June, with nine straight ODI wins to their name - a feat that if suggested a year ago would have been laughed at, even by the most die-hard Pakistani fans.
An aggressive brand of cricket in the 50-over format has also rubbed off on their T20I performances, where they have achieved five wins and just one loss in the same period.
Pakistan's good form in ODIs has seen them rise to sixth in the ICC rankings, while they have shown excellent progress in the T20I format, where they are currently ranked second, just behind New Zealand.
Sarfraz's leadership qualities as an aggressive captain and one who drives his team forward are admirable - the Karachi-born wicketkeeper has grabbed captaincy by the scruff of the neck and is moulding the limited-overs teams based on his approach to cricket.
But, as he will soon find out in the five ODIs and three T20Is, defeating New Zealand at home is anything but a foregone conclusion, regardless of the confidence he and his team-mates will bring from their recent winning run.
For a start, New Zealand will be walking tall after annihilating the Windies. Plus, they have a commanding record over Pakistan in home conditions - the Kiwis hold a 26-15 ODI win advantage and a tally of five wins against Pakistan's record of two wins in T20Is.
The power of Pakistan's winning momentum in the second half of 2017 cannot be discounted, but the absence of left-arm pacemen Junaid Khan and Usman Khan Shinwari due to injury is a huge loss. Both bowlers have been in excellent form and would have been ideal in New Zealand conditions, particularly with the new ball and in the death overs.
There are also worries for the Pakistan team's overall balance due to Mohammad Hafeez's ban which was imposed on him after he was, once again, deemed to have an illegal bowling action.
Add to this the loss of Imad Wasim due to injury and it would appear that Sarfraz and coach Mickey Arthur have a few selection headaches to contend with. However, as has been proven over the years, the Pakistani bowling factory continues to produce players who can perform at the highest level.
Mohammad Amir and Rumman Raees are quite easily capable of providing Pakistan the fast-bowling firepower they need, while the presence of the world's No 1 ranked ODI bowler, Hasan Ali, and the very capable all-rounder Faheem Ashraf and the pace bowling department looks more than capable of challenging New Zealand.
Complementing this very capable pace attack will be the guile of highly-rated leg-spinner Shadab Khan, who will be joining the team fresh from a short but successful stint at the Big Bash League with Brisbane Heat. It would appear that taking wickets in New Zealand should not be a problem for Pakistan.
Their main challenge will come from putting up or chasing large totals. While Fakhar Zaman had a fantastic outing in the Champions Trophy, he has struggled to make an impact since his century at The Oval against India and he will be tested given the quality of bowling and the pitch conditions he will face in New Zealand.
The weight of expectations, then, will fall on the likes of the recalled Azhar Ali, the reliable Babar Azam and the experienced duo of Hafeez and Shoaib Malik. In addition, the elegant left-hander Haris Sohail, who has had terrible luck with injuries, looks like he is back to his best and could be Pakistan's trump card in the batting department.
A new name to many outside Pakistan is Imam-ul-Haq, Inzamam's nephew, who scored a century on ODI debut. It could be a testing tour for Imam, but one that also presents him with an opportunity to prove his critics wrong.
It is true that Pakistan's previous record in New Zealand does not inspire much confidence in their upcoming battle. However, Sarfraz will take solace from the fact he is in charge of a team of players who have touched new heights in the past few months and will be eager to demonstrate they are no flash in the pan.
New Zealand go into both series as favourites due to their familiarity of home conditions, but this new-look Pakistan team, full of flair and armed with the exuberance of youth, should not be written off by anyone.