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Pakistan, NZ wary of brand new venue in key clash

PALLEKELE (Sri Lanka), March 7: Pakistan and New Zealand chart into the relatively unknown territory as they brace themselves to meet in the Group ‘A’ fixture of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 at the Pallekele International Cricket Stadium here on Tuesday.

For both teams, the venue is an untested and untried one and only things they have managed into the past two days here is get acclimatised to the local conditions during the nets they had.

New Zealand, the mega event’s perennial underachievers who are yet not reaching a World Cup final despite making in to the semi-finals in five out of nine mega events including in 1975, 1979, 1983, 1992 and 1999, have just one win in seven meetings against Pakistan.

But that equation doesn’t come into play because these two teams are coming across at the World Cup after almost 12 years. In their last such meeting, Pakistan overwhelmed their opponents comprehensively after Saeed Anwar and Wajahatullah Wasti shared World Cup’s highest opening partnership of 194 in the semi-final at Old Trafford.

Pakistan, who head Group ‘A’ at the halfway stage with an unblemished record, should take confidence from the fact that New Zealand had a torrid time in the subcontinent earlier this season when they lost a combined total of nine matches in Bangladesh and India.

However, they bounced back in their own backyard against Pakistan and played a close series which was won 3-2 by Shahid Afridi’s men. New Zealand’s overall track record since the start of 2009 is quite patchy – only 16 victories in 40 One-day Internationals and mere three from the previous 16 one-dayers.

However, New Zealand were clinical in their wins over Kenya and Zimbabwe in this World Cup. In between they were unable to match the intensity of the Australians and inevitably suffered the consequences against the defending champions.

Pakistan may be only one win away from becoming the first team in the tournament to qualify for the quarter-finals, but they have to sort out their game plan because there are big question marks over the composition of the playing XI.

Playing six specialist batsmen tilts the balance somehow and suggests that Pakistan are one batsman too many. This makeup of the side becomes more questionable when Shahid Afridi and Abdul Razzaq are pitched into the frame.

Pakistan has been lucky to get a reasonable schedule of matches and were even luckier to have survived a bad day against Canada last Thursday.

However, there has a general debate as to why Pakistan are not giving due importance to the fact that a well-balanced team has more chances of winning a bits-and-pieces outfit.

The Green shirts have also been lucky that three times out of three in the tournament, skipper Afridi has been the hero with the ball and his 14 wickets, unsurprisingly, makes him the runaway leader on the bowlers’ chart.

But Afridi, by his own admission, can’t be expected to take the bulk of wickets every time Pakistan field. The character of the Pallekele pitch remains a mystery until Tuesday. The only hard facts about this venue we all know thus far is that Sri Lanka hosted the West Indies in a rain-ruined Test match here last December, and that the coming game will be the first One-day International ever to be played in Pallekele.

The impressive stadium, located on the outskirt about half an hour drive from Kandy, has a capacity of almost 30,000 spectators. Sri Lanka Cricket, which acquired the land here in 2006, had spent approximately around 3.95 million dollars to get this venue ready in time for the World Cup.

The weather should not be a worry at all because, unlike Colombo, the humidity here is not on the higher side which will make the players feel somewhat comfortable.

Teams (from):

PAKISTAN: Mohammad Hafeez, Ahmed Shehzad, Kamran Akmal, Younis Khan, Misbah-ul-Haq, Umar Akmal, Shahid Afridi (captain), Abdul Razzaq, Abdur Rehman, Umar Gul, Shoaib Akhtar, Wahab Riaz, Saeed Ajmal, Asad Shafiq, Junaid Khan.

NEW ZEALAND: Martin Guptill, Brendon McCullum, Jesse Ryder, Ross Taylor, Scott Styris, Jacob Oram, James Franklin, Daniel Vettori (captain), Nathan McCullum, Kyle Mills, Tim Southee, Hamish Bennett, Jamie How, Kane Williamson, Luke Woodcock.

PITCH CONDITIONS: Heavy rains last month have hit the preparations of the pitch, and if the sun comes out, the square will have good grass and help the seamers, provided the grass is not removed. The pitch has bounce and if it doesn’t rain will help batsmen.

Umpires: Daryl Harper (Australia) and Nigel Llong (England).
TV umpire: Ian Gould (England).
Reserve umpire: Shavir Tarapore (India).
Match referee: Chris Broad (England).