KARACHI: The presence of current Pakistan stars will be the main attraction during the course of the next 16 days as eight regional teams fight for supremacy in the ‘marathon’ National T20 Cup which explodes into action on Saturday at the Pindi Cricket Stadium in Rawalpindi.

With the Bangladesh Premier League being played concurrently, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) has made it mandatory for all the centrally-contracted players to compete in the national tournament instead of plying their trade in the franchise-based event.

That effectively ensures participation of Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed, seasoned campaigners Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez plus young stars such as Hasan Ali, Babar Azam, Fakhar Zaman, Shadab Khan, Fahim Ashraf and Rumman Raees Khan.

Sarfraz will be in seen in action after missing last year’s tournament held in Faisalabad and Multan when he leads Karachi Whites, who lost a thrilling final to Karachi Blues by three runs at the Multan Cricket Stadium.

While Hafeez captains Lahore Blues, Malik will be at Islamabad’s services alongside Hasan Ali, Fakhar turning out for Peshawar, Shadab representing native Rawalpindi and Fahim holding the key for Faisalabad on his region’s return after a gap of two seasons.

On paper at least Karachi Whites seem to have a formidable squad at their disposal with Sarfraz, Rumman teaming up with Haris Sohail, Anwar Ali, Khurram Manzoor, Mir Hamza and the veteran duo of Zulfiqar Babar and Shahid Yousuf.

Lahore Whites also look impressive enough with the Akmal brothers, Kamran and Umar (who scored the only century of last year’s event), Wahab Riaz playing under Salman Butt’s leadership. Injuries to Imad Wasim and Usman Khan Shinwari leave both Islamabad and Fata heading into the competition without their nominated skippers.

Faisalabad, who have already lost their first-class status after finishing the league round of the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy National Cricket Championship as the bottom-placed region, have to play at their best to challenge the top guns in the absence of long-time captain, Misbah-ul-Haq after the retired Pakistan skipper preferred to fulfil his lucrative deal with Chittagong Vikings in the BPL rather help out his native regional side.

The opening fixture on Saturday sees the now Imran Khalid-led Faisalabad take on Karachi Whites at noon while the second game on day one features Blues playing Whites in an all-Lahore clash from 4:00pm onwards.

Unlike past seasons when teams had come through the group stage to get into semi-finals, this edition is being staged on a single league basis for the first time in the competition history with all teams slated to play against each other in the revised format and that means every team is guaranteed seven fixtures before four top outfits progress to the knockout phase.

The league fixtures continue until Nov 24 with two matches per day. The semi-finals are scheduled for Nov 25 while the title-decider will be held the next afternoon (Nov 26) after the PCB’s domestic cricket committee was forced to postpone the tournament from the original dates of Aug 25-Sept 10 first owing to the visit of the World XI’s short visit of Pakistan and then the series against Sri Lanka in the UAE.

Furthermore, the venue had to be changed twice because the drastic change in the weather during this period. Initially, Multan was picked to host matches from Aug 25 to Aug 31 before Faisalabad was to take over following the Eid-ul-Azha holidays (Sept 1-3) from Sept 4.

The PCB then decided to move out the tournament from Faisalabad in the revised dates because of heavy smog in the industrial city before finally settling for the garrison city of Rawalpindi where the conditions are just about adequate at this time of the year to organise topflight cricket matches. However, to eliminate the distinct possibility of dew ruining play under lights, the organisers have sensibly opted to avoid starting matches after sunset.

Schedule:

Nov 11: Karachi Whites vs Faisalabad (12:00noon); Lahore Whites vs Lahore Blues (4:00pm).

Nov 12: Peshawar vs Fata (12:00noon); Rawalpindi vs Islamabad (4:00pm).

Nov 13: Lahore Blues vs Faisalabad (12:00noon); Karachi Whites vs Lahore Whites (4:00pm).

Nov 14: Rawalpindi vs Peshawar (12:00noon); Islamabad vs Fata (4:00pm).

Nov 15: Lahore Whites vs Faisalabad (12:00noon); Karachi Whites vs Lahore Blues (4:00pm).

Nov 16: Islamabad vs Peshawar (12:00noon); Rawalpindi vs Fata (4:00pm).

Nov 17: Lahore Whites vs Fata (12:00noon); Rawalpindi vs Karachi Whites (4:00pm).

Nov 18: Lahore Blues vs Peshawar (12:00noon); Islamabad vs Faisalabad (4:00pm).

Nov 19: Rawalpindi vs Lahore (12:00noon); Karachi Whites vs Peshawar (4:00pm).

Nov 20: Karachi Whites vs Islamabad (12:00noon); Lahore Blues vs Fata (4:00pm).

Nov 21: Lahore Whites vs Peshawar (12:00noon); Rawalpindi vs Faisalabad (4:00pm).

Nov 22: Karachi Whites vs Fata (12:00noon); Islamabad vs Lahore Blues (4:00pm).

Nov 23: Rawalpindi vs Lahore Blues (12:00noon); Peshawar vs Faisalabad (4:00pm).

Nov 24: Islamabad vs Lahore Whites (12:00noon); Faisalabad vs Fata (4:00pm).

Nov 25: First semi-final (12:00noon); Second semi-final (4:00pm).

Nov 26: Final (4:00pm).

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2017