After all those years of vying for wider international acceptance of its ability to host cricket in the country, one of the elites have come marching into Pakistan at long last. There is no other way to describe New Zealand - finalists at the last two ODI World Cups and the No.1-ranked side in the world - who gear up for three ODIs in Rawalpindi over the coming week. They might not have some of their biggest stars, off to the IPL, but if you know anything about New Zealand, it's that their quality lies in the collective rather than the individual.
For some on the outside, these ODIs might not appear to carry much significance. The world's eyes will likely be transfixed on the IPL, and with the T20 World Cup approaching, it is that format that lays claim to greater pertinence. Besides, an inability on Pakistan's side to secure DRS for the series, and New Zealand's subsequent reluctance to accept these ODIs as part of the ODI World Super League canon, means the three games won't build towards World Cup qualification. They will instead stand alone as three 50-over games that do little more than offer a glimmer of each side's strengths and weaknesses in a format that doesn't quite become relevant for at least another year.
But for Pakistan, these games carry more significance. New Zealand are among the teams hardest to persuade to return to play cricket in Pakistan after a tour in 2002 had to be cancelled mid-way following a bomb attack at the hotel where the sides stayed. In 2015, the New Zealand Cricket Players Association chief Heath Mills criticised Zimbabwe for deciding to visit Pakistan, saying independent security experts advised against touring. That, six years on, a top-ranked New Zealand side turn up in Islamabad will be seen as proof, both home and abroad, of the very tangible progress Pakistan has made.
Pakistan saw major upheavals off the field, too, with the recent appointment of Ramiz Raja as PCB chairman and the resignations of Misbah-ul-Haq and Waqar Younis as coaches. With ODIs few and far between since the 2019 World Cup for Pakistan, predicting how they might go is an even trickier task than it normally might be. However, after a truly dismal outing against a second-string England in July, Babar Azam's side will be under pressure to show that was the exception rather than the norm.
There's even less recent data to go on when it comes to New Zealand, who have played a mere seven ODIs since that heartbreak at Lord's. That included clean sweeps against India and Bangladesh at home, but the World Cup finalists haven't played in Asia since November 2018, when they split a three-match series against Pakistan in the UAE 1-1. There are new faces and places up for grabs in the side in the absence of the likes of Kane Williamson and Trent Boult. Finn Allen and Rachin Ravindra are the more exciting ones among them. And while stand-in captain Tom Latham might never have played in Pakistan, he has tended, historically, to feel more at home in this continent than anywhere else in the world.
Pakistan: LLLWL (last five completed matches, most recent first) New Zealand: WWWLW
In the spotlight
With the extent to which spin dominated New Zealand's tour to Bangladesh and the unavailability of fingerspinner Mohammad Nawaz due to a positive Covid test, this might be Iftikhar Ahmed's best shot at securing a place in the Pakistan ODI side. The batting allrounder hasn't ever got going in this format and fell from favour in T20I cricket after a fairly bright start under previous head coach Misbah, but a case of needs might see him becoming a mainstay of the lower-middle order this series. His contributions with the bat have historically been meatier than Nawaz's were, and while five of his six ODI wickets came in a single game against Zimbabwe, an economy rate of 4.67 means the control he can provide through the middle order is likely to be useful.
Rachin Ravindra endured a challenging first tour with the bat against Bangladesh, but really, who didn't on those tracks? If the surface at Pindi Cricket Ground is more amenable to batting - and history suggests it will be - the longer format will give him a bit more space to fully express his talents. His List A record does need improving on, but a strike rate in excess of 92 and a highest score of 130 appears encouraging for New Zealand.
Nawaz's absence opens up a spot for Ifktikhar in the side, while Imam-ul-Haq will open alongside Fakhar Zaman. Shadab Khan and one of Usman Qadir and Zahid Mehmood will play, so spin is set to play a dominant role for Pakistan's bowling strategy.
Pakistan: (probable): 1 Fakhar Zaman 2 Imam-ul-Haq 3 Babar Azam (capt) 4 Saud Shakil 5 Mohammad Rizwan (wk) 6 Iftikhar Ahmed 7 Shadab Khan 8 Hasan Ali 9 Usman Qadir 10 Haris Rauf 11 Shaheen Shah Afridi
Tom Blundell being ruled out means Tom Latham is set to take on the gloves in addition to the captaincy, while top-order batter Finn Allen is set to make his ODI debut. With Ajaz Patel the only specialist spinner in the squad, offspin-bowling allrounder Cole McConchie might fancy his chances of getting an ODI cap, too.
New Zealand (possible): 1 Rachin Ravindra 2 Finn Allen 3 Will Young 4 Tom Latham (capt&wk) 5 Henry Nicholls 6 Colin de Grandhomme 7 Cole McConchie 8 Scott Kuggeleijn/Doug Bracewell 9 Ajaz Patel 10 Jacob Duffy/Blair Tickner 11 Matt Henry
Pitch and conditions
It's the tail-end of the monsoon season in Pakistan, but there's little chance of rain on the day. Conditions should be hot and humid, and dew may kick in towards the back end of the second innings.
Stats and trivia
Latham's career ODI average is 34.02, but in Asia, it soars to 46.81.
Pakistan have won all three ODIs the two sides have played in Rawalpindi.
Azam is 15 runs away from reaching 4000 ODI runs. Should he get there in the first ODI, he will have taken 84 matches to get there, joint quickest with Hashim Amla. Amla, however, reached the mark in 81 innings, while Friday will be Babar's 82nd, should he get to bat.
"In Bangladesh, the surfaces dictated the sort of variations that the bowlers needed to bowl whereas potentially here, we're a little bit unsure - we haven't played in these conditions before. For us, it's about trying to adapt to the conditions and try to think on our feet a little bit."
New Zealand captain Tom Latham acknowledges unfamiliarity with the conditions in Pakistan mean his side aren't quite set on exactly what bowling strategy they'll apply.