KARACHI: With the curtains on the 2018-19 domestic first-class season about to fall in the first Quaid-i-Azam Trophy National Cricket Championship final to be staged at the picturesque UBL Sports Complex, the battle over the next five days promises to be quite fascinating.
In one corner are the holders Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited with former Pakistan captain Misbah-ul-Haq to inspire them yet again, while the other corner sees a plucky Habib Bank Limited (HBL) bidding to lift their second trophy this season after having clinched the Quaid-i-Azam One-day Cup exactly a month ago when they beat Wapda by 29 runs in the title-decider at Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium.
In normal circumstances, Misbah — who retired after guiding Pakistan to their first0ever Test series victory in the West Indies last year — would have been sitting out but the absence of a large group of first-choice stars has forced Pakistan’s most successful Test leader to extend his playing career despite being a ripe 44-year-old now but one who remarkably remains one of the fittest cricketers in the modern era.
Faheem Ashraf returns from UAE to play in the title-decider
The champions literally have been without — for most of the campaign — regular captain Mohammad Hafeez, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Yasir Shah, Mohammad Abbas, Mohammad Rizwan, Shadab Khan, Hussain Talat, Rahat Ali, Musa Khan etc but still possessed enough depth to reach the final yet again as they aim to annex a remarkable fifth title in the last six seasons.
Just like SNGPL the HBL also had to fight hard to field first-choice players since the likes of Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Faheem Ashraf all missed the entire championship, while Amad Butt and Zohaib Khan — who has been their unsung hero this season — and Ashiq Ali are presently on Pakistan ‘A’ duty in the UAE.
But head coach Saleem Jaffer, the former Test paceman and ex-national selector, heaved a sigh of relief because Abid Ali and Faheem are both available for his side in the team.
“It has been a taxing season for us in terms of playing members because the exodus of current Pakistan stars left our bench-strength virtually threadbare. Abid has been one of the success stories for HBL but he too was missing when he called into the Pakistan ‘A’ squad,” Saleem said while talking to Dawn on Monday. “But we are extremely delighted to have both Abid and Faheem playing the final against a very seasoned SNGPL side. I owe a huge debt to [Pakistan captain] Sarfraz Ahmed and [head coach] Mickey Arthur and [chief selector] Inzamam-ul-Haq for allowing Faheem avail this opportunity [of playing for HBL] before the tour of South Africa.
“The reason we are in the final is largely due to the camaraderie in the ranks. The credit definitely goes to Imran Farhat because he has been a fabulous captain with tremendous support from senior guys like Umar Gul [HBL’s one-day captain] and Abdur Rehman.”
The last time these two departments confronted each other in October, Pakistan paceman Junaid Khan returned stunning figures of 7-17 to send SNGPL hurtling to 35 all out in their first innings at Faisalabad’s Iqbal Stadium as HBL handed the reigning champions their solitary defeat of this championship in a resounding 248-run victory.
Critically both SNGPL’s point of view, Junaid won’t be playing the final since he is still recuperating from a toe injury the left-armer sustained during the Twenty20 International series against New Zealand.
“One can say it’s a blessing in disguise [for us] that Junaid is missing the final because psychologically he would have held an edge after his great spell in the league-round fixture in Faisalabad,” SNGPL head coach Saleem Mughal told Dawn on Monday. “But having said that I still believe it will be a cracking match because we rate HBL as a very good team.”
The final will also see two of the Akmal brothers taking the field in the opposite ranks. Umar Akmal, who skipped HBL’s the last Super Eight fixture to play for Punjabi Legends in the just-ended T10 League in Sharjah while older sibling Adnan Akmal who will be in action for the first time since mid-October.
SNGPL, however, will be sorely missing the experienced Samiullah Khan Niazi, the ex-Pakistan left-arm paceman who grabbed 11 wickets against Wapda in last season’s final, as the 36-year-old is carrying a calf niggle.
SNGPL: Misbah-ul-Haq (captain), Imran Butt, Naeemuddin, Ali Waqas, Iftikhar Ahmed, Khurram Shehzad, Raees Ahmed, Adnan Akmal, Mohammad Imran, Imran Khalid, Bilawal Bhatti, Asad Ali, Azizullah, Irfan Elahi.
HBL: Imran Farhat (captain), Abid Ali, Jamal Anwar, Saad Khan, Umar Akmal, Ramiz Aziz, Agha Salman, Faheem Ashraf, Abdur Rehman, Umar Gul, Khurram Shehzad, Mohammad Waqas, Fazal Subhan, Haider Ramiz, Mohammad Makki, Sajjad Ali.
Umpires: Mohammad Asif and Faisal Afridi.
TV umpire: Waleed Yaqub.
Fourth umpire: Khalid Mahmood.
Match referee: Shahid Butt.
Official scorer: Wasim Abbas.
Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2018