In-form New Zealand returns to a happy hunting ground on Wednesday to meet a pace-packed, recharged Pakistan in the first of the Twenty20 World Cup semifinals.
New Zealand made a rollicking start to the Super 12 stage at the Sydney Cricket Ground last month when it thrashed host Australia by 89 runs, a win that avenged a defeat in last year’s world T20 final and a margin that ultimately cost the defending champions a spot in the semifinals.
Glenn Phillips smashed a century at the SCG later to outscore Sri Lanka as the Kiwis topped Group 1 on superior net run rate after finishing equal on seven competition points with England and Australia.
Pakistan got a barely believable entry into the semis after South Africa’s shocking 13-run loss to Netherlands on Sunday, one of the biggest upsets in a global limited-overs tournament. Now Pakistan is one win away from a final.
Had South Africa not stumbled again in a major ICC event, Pakistan’s win over Bangladesh wouldn’t have been enough to lift Babar Azam’s lineup into the playoff stage. Former Australia opener Matthew Hayden, working as a team mentor for Pakistan, described the combination of results as a “Magic day.”
Pakistan had a bumpy start but, like 2021 runners-up New Zealand, has fond memories of SCG, where Shadab Khan’s brilliant maiden T20 international half-century and two wickets in two balls led them to victory over South Africa in the group stage.
After starting with back-to-back last-over losses in Group 2 to archrival India and Zimbabwe, Pakistan regrouped with wins over Netherlands, South Africa and Bangladesh but still needed a favor from the Netherlands to sneak into the semifinals for a record sixth time.
The stars seemed to align for Pakistan, which 30 years ago came from nowhere to lift the 50-over World Cup trophy under Imran Khan in Australia. After sneaking into the semifinals in ’92, Khan’s famous ’cornered tigers’ Pakistan lineup beat New Zealand and England.
Hayden said during a pre-match news conference that during the ups and downs of the campaign, players told him: “Welcome to Pakistan cricket.”
“Meaning that on any given day, anything can happen. And on that particular day, when the Netherlands beat South Africa, it was a significant moment for us in the tournament and a very, very significant moment for the team in general around … reaching that potential,” Hayden said. “Incredible experience … it’s been a rollercoaster ride.”
The inclusion of power-hitter Mohammad Haris in place of injured Fakhar Zaman sparked new life in an otherwise struggling top order as he blasted 28 off 11 balls against South Africa and then hammered 31 off 18 deliveries against Bangladesh in a five-wicket victory.
The luxury of having two spinning all-rounders, Mohammad Nawaz and Shadab Khan, who both can bat as high as No. 4, allowed Pakistan to include Mohammad Wasim as the fourth fast bowler. Pakistan went with five specialist bowlers and left out Wasim against India before Virat Kohli played the T20 innings of his life and took the match away from them.
The struggles of Babar and Mohammad Rizwan’s opening partnership is another headache for Pakistan, with just one half-century stand between them in four games. Rizwan has scored 103 runs in five innings, while Babar had four single-digit scores before he struggled to make 25 against Bangladesh.
Shaheen Shah Afridi, back from a knee injury, appeared to get his bowling rhythm back with a four-wicket haul against Bangladesh. And with Haris Rauf and Naseem Shah also in the ranks, Pakistan has a formidable pace attack to challenge New Zealand batters.
Kane Williamson’s team also lost the triangular series final at home to Pakistan just before the T20 World Cup, but New Zealand’s only loss since arriving in Australia was against England.
In Finn Allen and Devon Conway, the Kiwis have formidable openers. Williamson, Phillips and Daryl Mitchell form the nucleus of the middle order. Williamson, who struggled with his strike rate in the earlier matches, hit form against Ireland in the last group game with 61 off 35 balls.
Left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner leads the New Zealand wicket-takers with eight in four games, although the pace trio of Trent Boult, Lockie Ferguson and Tim Southee have picked 20 wickets between them.
Williamson said for all the focus on batting at this tournament, the consistency and threat of New Zealand’s bowling attack may have been overshadowed.
“They’ve played for us a long time, whether that’s taking wickets or, in particular, adjusting to conditions,” he said. “They’ve been outstanding throughout this tournament. And tomorrow, we’re at another venue against another opposition, and we’ll have to make those adjustments again.”
The toss could be crucial for both teams as five out of six games at the SCG in this tournament have been won by teams batting first.