Both sides will be led by captains who are new to the role in Mitchell Santner and Shadab Khan
Pakistan haven’t played much cricket in the month since they set off for New Zealand, but that doesn’t mean this tour hasn’t been among the headlines. After three weeks of acrimonious quarantine that included positive Covid test, isolation breaches, threats from New Zealand that Pakistan were on their final warning and counter-threats of Pakistan returning home anyway – the series getting off the ground at all is something of a relief.
Which is nice, because in these somewhat cricket-starved times, few boards can bear an expensive cancellation – just ask Cricket South Africa. More importantly, the cricket promises to be really, really good.
Of course, Kane Williamson will be missed in the first T20I by New Zealand, still absent following the birth of his first child. In fact, there are several high-profile absentees for the hosts, with Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Kyle Jamieson and the injured Lockie Ferguson all absent from a notably inexperienced 13-man squad.
That might allow Pakistan to look upon the game as an opportunity to start the tour well, though the red-hot Glenn Phillips and experienced hands of Martin Guptill and James Neesham ensure the batting line-up is not entirely wet behind the ears.
Mitchell Santner will hope for his first complete international as captain after the third T20I against the West Indies was ruined by rain. But it’s the other spinner in the squad, Ish Sodhi, whose contribution may prove of greater consequence. The hosts are fresh off a clutch 2-0 T20I series win against a West Indies side that on paper appears to pack a greater threat than Pakistan, and Sodhi was pivotal to the second win.
Varying his flight and pace expertly, he conceded just 26 in his four overs in a game where Southee, Santner and Neesham each went at over 12, and New Zealand themselves managed 238. One such spell in a high-scoring T20I could well turn the game around once more.
Perhaps all those absences put together don’t quite make up for the extent to which Pakistan will miss Babar Azam, ruled out of all three T20Is in a huge blow for an already unfancied visiting side. Their squad has its own quota of young players, but doesn’t necessarily correlate with inexperience in their case. Shaheen Afridi is an all-format world-leading bowler despite his tender years, while 22-year old stand-in captain Shadab Khan has morphed into an exciting all-rounder.
Mohammad Hasnain and Wahab Riaz should enjoy the pace and bounce Eden Park offers. Mohammad Hafeez appears to have reinvented himself more times than you might care to keep track of, and his form could be a crucial barometer for Pakistan’s showing in the series. And in Haider Ali and Khushdil Shah, Pakistan possess the sort of insouciant power-hitters each elite side needs to have to be competitive at the top in the modern game.