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Pakistan finally gear up for some cricket after plenty of off-field turmoil

Pakistan and New Zealand face off in five-match series which features Babar's return as captain and Wasim and Amir coming back to international cricket

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
17-Apr-2024 • 19 hrs ago
Michael Bracewell and Babar Azam with the T20I series trophy  •  AFP via Getty Images

Michael Bracewell and Babar Azam with the T20I series trophy  •  AFP via Getty Images

It's April, that time of the year when a certain white-ball tournament takes over cricket's ecosystem. Tickets can be onerous to procure, fan experiences in certain stadiums can leave much to be desired, and it drags on longer than perhaps it needs to. The crowds are passionate regardless of the quality of cricket, which can vary greatly, and they stay right to the end, despite games finishing late enough to make getting home an inconvenience.
But there's more to Pakistan versus New Zealand than all of the above when they meet for five T20Is beginning Thursday. This is the second successive year New Zealand come to Pakistan in April to play a white-ball series, and the fourth time since December 2022 that these two sides are meeting in Pakistan. In between, there was a return visit from Pakistan to play five T20Is in New Zealand in January, while New Zealand have two further visits scheduled in the next 12 months - to play a tri-series, and then the Champions Trophy. There may be half a world between them, but these two teams cannot seem to get enough of each other.
There's no point pretending New Zealand have sent the best they can offer, because the majority of their first team is currently over in India for the IPL. But it was the same last year, when a Tom Latham-led side played five T20Is and five ODIs in Pakistan, walking away with a creditable 2-2 draw in the shortest format.
The squad they sent this time, though, is both weaker and yet braver, which should make it an exciting series. Allrounder Michael Bracewell will captain the side as he makes his return to international cricket. The relative experience of Latham, Chad Bowes and Dane Cleaver has been done away with, with the more explosive Josh Clarkson and Dean Foxcroft (once of Lahore Qalandars) picked for the tour. There is, admittedly, a Super Smash feel to a squad where Finn Allen and Adam Milne's unavailability threaten to further tilt the balance away from the visitors.
A glance at the Pakistan squad will tell you they are strong on paper. They are coming off a PSL season and have selected a squad based on form, with Imad Wasim and Mohammad Amir returning to the international fold, while Naseem Shah is looking back to his best after a long-term injury. Babar Azam was among the runs yet again, and Saim Ayub - perhaps the brightest spark in a 4-1 series loss in New Zealand - has seen his stocks continue to rise. Shadab Khan was the PSL's player of the tournament, and Abrar Ahmed is once more injury-free. There are even signs of Shaheen Shah Afridi cranking it up closer to his pre-injury speeds, with Haris Rauf the only frontline injury absence at present.
But Pakistan are not a clinical, ruthless side, and many of these things were said 12 months ago, too. Their reputation of playing up, or down, to their opponents' level is well deserved, and consistency has continued to prove elusive. The Rawalpindi Cricket Ground is not quite Eden Park in terms of its diminutive boundaries, but it's still prone to huge scores, which could perhaps neutralise some of the advantages Pakistan carry in batting and bowling firepower. There's also the matter of what goals to set for this series; T20I bilateral trophies are arguably the least prestigious silverware in cricket, and this particular series is especially so. Pakistan head coach Azhar Mahmood suggested not even captain Babar was inoculated from being rotated, which suggests Pakistan have one eye on the T20 World Cup in June.
For Pakistan, rest, rotation and experimentation in this format essentially boil down to a tedious, repetitive discussion of what to do about the top order, how to fit both Mohammad Rizwan and Babar in, and whether their strike rates are up to elite standards. The Rawalpindi Cricket Ground is due for a paint job ahead of next year's Champions Trophy, and one suspects most would rather watch it dry than read another rehashed version of that debate, so we'll move on from it as expediently as possible.
Pakistan did take Haseebullah to New Zealand as a wildcard in their top order, playing him in one match before, in their infinite wisdom, dropping him from the squad altogether. Mohammad Haris, who was "rested" from that tour despite being a single-format player, has apparently not quite recuperated, so he won't feature either. Instead, the switching of Usman Khan's allegiance from the UAE to Pakistan after a successful PSL has seen him called up post-haste, though where Pakistan try and squeeze him in remains a point of intrigue.
But no Pakistan discussion is complete without off-field shenanigans, and even a New Zealand side who just played this team in their backyard three months ago will realise they are far from being caught up. In that time, team director Mohammad Hafeez has been dispensed with, along with the bulk of his coaching staff. There's a new board chairman in town in Mohsin Naqvi, who couldn't have been less subtle about his lack of support for Afridi as captain, sacking him and bringing Babar back in a manner that left Afridi thoroughly unimpressed.
Wahab Riaz is no longer the chief selector; he is instead part of a seven-member selection committee that does not have a leader. He is also the senior team manager alongside, of course, a regular team manager, and another selector, Mohammad Yousaf, is also the batting coach. The data analyst is Bilal Afzal, whose job immediately before this was the Minister of Environment Protection, Forest, Wildlife and Fisheries.
In short, a lot is going on with Pakistan, and expecting what's happening off-field not to impact the cricket is the ultimate form of optimism. And perhaps New Zealand, who have lost just one of the five series they have played Pakistan in over the past 18 months, don't just understand that glorious chaos, but have also found an ability to tame it.

Danyal Rasool is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @Danny61000