Pakistan, New Zealand gear up for pace battle

JOHANNESBURG: Pakistani and New Zealand batsmen are expected to face a stiff pace test in the Champions Trophy semi-final here on Saturday.

Four of the six matches played at the Wanderers here were low-scoring affairs, with fast bowlers calling the shots on lively pitches having both pace and bounce. Pakistan have performed well in all of their three games, beating arch-rivals India and the West Indies before losing a close match against defending champions Australia.

Their batting clicked against India in the opening match, with middle-order batsmen Shoaib Malik (128) and Mohammad Yousuf (87) helping their team post a challenging 302-9. Pakistan also have talented fast bowlers in Mohammad Aamer, Umar Gul, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Mohammad Asif. Their spinners, Saeed Ajmal and Shahid Afridi, have also impressed.

Pakistan captain Younus Khan has conceded he faces a selection dilemma ahead of the semi-final, especially after paceman Mohammad Asif’s impressive performance (2-34) against Australia. Asif, playing his first one-dayer after serving a one-year ban for a failed dope test, replaced teenager Aamer in the last game.

“It’ll be a tough call. We’ll try and make the right decision on the day,” Younus had said after the last match. “In the semi-final, it doesn’t matter who you play against or where you play because it is a big game. Pressure is not only on us, but also on New Zealand. If we get through two more games we are the champions.”

New Zealand have won both of their matches at this venue, beating Sri Lanka and England to make it to the semi-finals with four points from three games in the four-team Group B. They were well-served by seamer Grant Elliott who was named man of the match for bagging four wickets in his team’s victory over England in their last league game on Tuesday.

New Zealand also have excellent pacemen in Kyle Mills and Shane Bond, who are capable of making life difficult for batsmen on helpful tracks. They will also be keen to better their performance in big matches, having fallen in the semi-finals of the 2006 Champions Trophy in India and the 2007 World Cup in Caribbean. It will be the first one-day international between the two since October 2006 when New Zealand beat Pakistan in a league match of the tournament’s last edition.

New Zealand batsman Martin Guptill said the team’s morale was high going into the match. “Our confidence level is high at the moment,” said Guptill. “We are extremely confident of putting up a good performance in the semi-final against Pakistan. They are a very good side, but I think we are capable of matching them.”