KARACHI: The State Bank of Pakistan will be ‘red-hot’ favourites to clinch the Patron’s Trophy Grade-II cricket title when they meet the Higher Education Commission (HEC) in the four-day final at the Pindi Cricket Stadium in Rawalpindi from Thursday.

The State Bank — a side flooded with a host of stars including Pakistan limited-overs all-rounder Mohammad Nawaz, batsmen Saad Ali and Sahibzada Farhan — made it to the title-decider with a clinical rout of Navy as they thrashed the sailors in less than two days of semi-final action by an innings and 172 runs at Islamabad’s Diamond Club Ground.

In sharp contrast, the other semi-final at the Pindi Cricket Stadium finished in an exciting draw with the HEC eight wickets down in their second innings against Sabir’s Poultry while chasing 201. But the students hung in there long enough to escape defeat to reach their maiden final on the basis of a narrow lead of six runs on the first innings.

State Bank, however, will take the field without their regular skipper Usman Salahuddin. The discarded Test right-hander is indisposed with a stomach problem and will be replaced as captain by Saad in the final with Umar Waheed coming in for his first game of the competition.

Saad, Ilyas and Nawaz have been the backbone of SBP’s road to the final. Saad, the gifted left-handed batsman, has led the batting chart with 349 runs in four matches while promising paceman Ilyas has been in prolific wicket-taking form with 20 victims to his credit.

In semi-final against Navy, Ilyas grabbed seven wickets including a hat-trick in the first innings during which the left-arm seamer Taj Wali also dismissed three Navy batsmen off successive deliveries.

The HEC — who used to compete as Pakistan Universities some years ago — are largely a bunch of inexperienced youngsters with skipper Asfand Mehran and opener Fahad Usman the oldest of the group at 25.

Asfand has led by example as the HEC’s pivotal all-rounder — 198 runs with the bat and 12 wickets with his slow left-armers — while Fahad is the side’s batting star with 343 runs, a tally that includes two centuries.

Hammad Butt, the 20-year-old right-handed opener, was the hero in the semi-final with scores of 172 and 51, while the 22-year-old Mohammad Faiq has been a consistent contributor at No.3.

The HEC bowling will largely depend on the shoulders of paceman Mamoon Riaz, who has picked up 17 wickets, including seven against Sabir’s Poultry. Upcoming all-rounder Sharoon Siraj is a decent pace bowler and handy lower-order batsman who could make a real difference against the powerful State Bank over the next four days.

And even though the HEC end up losing the battle, the experience their young players gain against seasoned campaigners should give them a lot of hope for their cricketing future.

The winners of the title will receive Rs500,000 with the runners-up to get Rs250,000 while there are Rs50,000 individual prizes for the man-of-the-final, best batsman, best bowler and best wicket-keeper.

Teams (from):

STATE BANK: Sahibzada Farhan, Israrullah, Mohammad Nawaz, Saad Ali (captain), Rohail Nazir, Naved Yasin, Hamza Nadeem, Mohammad Ilyas, Taj Wali, Basit Ali, Umar Waheed, Rizwan Hussain, Mukhtar Ahmed, Haseeb Azam.

HEC: Fahad Usman, Hammad Butt, Mohammad Faiq, Arsalan Zia, Asfand Mehran (captain), Kamran Afzal, Hamza Akbar, Sharoon Siraj, Sajid Khan, Mamoon Riaz, Bilal Anwar, Kashif Nadeem, Haseeb-ur-Rehman, Saif-ur-Rehman.

Umpires: Nasar Khan and Mohammad Kaleem.

Match referee: Ali Naqvi.

Official scorer: Shakeel Ahmed.

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2019