MOUNT MAUNGANUI-Led by wicketkeeper batsman Muhammad Rizwan, Pakistan cricket team will be looking to trouble New Zealand with their pace battery in the first Test in Mount Maunganui today (Saturday) while both the sides will also be looking for gaining key ICC World Test Championship points. 

Pakistan have a few issues to deal. They will be without Babar Azam and Imam-ul-Haq for the first Test; both injured their thumbs during the training sessions. Added to that missing list is Shadab Khan, who captained them in the T20Is and injured his thigh during the last game. He has been replaced by left-arm spinner Zafar Gohar in the squad.

The last time they played in the format, they suffered a 0-1 loss against England in August this year. However, they put up some good performances in the series, especially in the batting department with the likes of Azhar Ali and Shan Masood finishing among the top five run-scorers. Having denied New Zealand a clean sweep with a win in the third T20I in Napier, Pakistan will now be bolstered by the return of Test regulars like Yasir Shah, Shan Masood, Abid Ali, Azhar Ali and Haris Sohail.

After securing a 2-1 victory in the T20I series, New Zealand, on the other hand, will be looking to start on a winning note in the first Test. If the hosts win both their Tests against Pakistan, they have a good chance of displacing India to capture the No.2 spot in the ICC World Test Championship standings. They have been in good form, winning each of their last four Tests, defeating India and West Indies. Against Pakistan, they have won four out of their last five Tests, giving them an edge.

Kane Williamson, who missed the second Test against West Indies for the birth of his child, will be back to lead in whites and complete a formidable looking batting line-up. They have an equally intimidating bowling attack with a mix of experience and youth. In fact, Tim Southee and Kyle Jamieson are among the top five wicket-takers in the format this year. The only major name missing is that of Colin de Grandhomme, who was ruled out of the series with a stress-reaction to his right ankle. In his place Daryl Mitchell offers an able all-round replacement.

The hosts secured a 2-1 victory in the T20I series with wins in the first two matches. Their performance was clinical with comfortable victories. However, Pakistan bounced back in the last game with a four-wicket win, largely thanks to a brilliant knock from Mohammad Rizwan, proving that on a better day they are capable of taking on the hosts. 

However, Tests are a different ball game and New Zealand have a better record of late against Pakistan. They have won each of their last two Tests series against Pakistan, the previous 2-1 victory coming in the UAE in 2018/19. The series was balanced 1-1 after two Tests before the Kiwis clinched the third Test with a comprehensive 123-run win. 

The Bay Oval ground is expected to produce a lively green New Zealand wicket which will suit the New Zealand attack of Tim Southee, Trent Boult, Neil Wagner and Kyle Jamieson, but stand-in Pakistan captain Mohammad Rizwan said it could also benefit his side. “It doesn’t matter if (the pitch) has grass on it. The grass is the same for us as it is for the New Zealand side. It all depends on hard work. Whoever does the hard work is going to get the result,” Rizwan said.

New Zealand Captain Kane Williamson, who missed the second Test against the West Indies to be with his wife for the birth of their first child, refuses to look at the big picture. “I think the context of that (Test championship) is great for the game in general, but our focus, as it was in the last couple of Tests, is to basically start again and adapt to the conditions that we’re going to have,” he said. “So it’s coming back to those basics for us and basically playing what is in front of us rather than getting too carried away with potential eventual things, who knows?”

SQUADS

PAKISTAN (PROBABLES): Shan Masood, Abid Ali, Azhar Ali, Fawad Alam, Haris Sohail, Mohammad Rizwan (capt & wk), Faheem Ashraf, Yasir Shah or Sohail Khan, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas and Naseem Shah. 

NEW ZEALAND (PROBABLES): Tom Latham, Tom Blundell, Kane Williamson (capt), Ross Taylor, Henry Nicholls, BJ Watling (wk), Daryl Mitchell, Kyle Jamieson, Tim Southee, Neil Wagner and Trent Boult.