KARACHI: Newly-appointed Pakistan captain Azhar Ali is among seven players who will be hoping to have a decent run as red-ball cricket resumes after a 20-day gap with the fifth-round of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy’s First Xi competition starting from Monday.
With Pakistan slated to face the might of Australia in a two-match Test series from Nov 21, Azhar will be hoping to travel Down Under with his batting form intact after being among the runs in the previous four rounds while leading Central Punjab to the top of six-team standings.
The 34-year-old right-handed Azhar lies second behind championship’s top run-getter Ashfaq Ahmed — who has amassed 473 runs with the aid of three centuries at a staggering average of 157.66 for third-placed Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — with a tally of 388 runs (ave 77.60), figures which include two centuries.
However, Azhar has opted to relinquish the captaincy for Central Punjab’s fixture against Sindh at the Iqbal Stadium in Faisalabad chiefly because he won’t be available for the rest of domestic first-class season since he would be involved in the Tests at Brisbane (Nov 21-25) and Adelaide (day/night game, Nov 29-Dec 3). Vice-captain Ahmed Shehzad, thus, takes over the Central Punjab leadership.
In the previous four rounds saw as many as 29 three-figure individual knocks being scored but Pakistan batsman Asad Shafiq has still to score a hundred this season. The diminutive right-hander has made just 254 runs (ave 63.50) with a best of 81 — against Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at Karachi — in four matches for Sindh.
Sindh are expected to be led by their appointed skipper Sarfraz Ahmed, who was not only recently sacked as Pakistan Test and T20 captain but was not included in the either squad for the Australia tour. The wicket-keeper/batsman’s solitary appearance in the competition was the first-round game against Balochistan at the UBL Sports Complex in Karachi.
In-form Pakistan opener Abid Ali, who has the honour of notching up the highest individual score — a career-best unbeaten 249 for Sindh against Balochistan in round one — would be eyeing another big score to boost his confidence before heading off to Australia, while hoping to win his maiden Test cap.
Abid’s Sindh team-mate Kashif Bhatti, the 33-year-old slow left-armer from Nawabshah, will be desperate for a rich haul before embarking on his first tour with the national side. He has thus far bagged 10 wickets at a decent return of 27.40 in three matches.
The 16-year-old bowler Nasim Shah, who is a shock inclusion in the Test squad, has claimed nine wickets (ave 26.22) for Central Punjab. With the onset of winter, the youngster could find the Faisalabad weather more conducive and a good haul of wickets in this match would only ease his nerves for the big test ahead.
The bowler under most pressure at the moment is Yasir Shah. The experienced Test leg-spinner had tough days in the championship with the Kookaburra ball. Despite emerging as the highest wicket-taker with a tally of 15, Yasir’s main worries are his average — an unhealthy return of 43.80 per wicket — and economy rate of 3.51 per over in the four appearances for Balochistan, who host Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the Bugti Stadium in Quetta.
Southern Punjab captain Shan Masood had a below par season at the first-class level with only 213 runs (ave 42.60) from five innings. The tall left-hander will be vying with Abid as Imam-ul-Haq’s opening partner Down Under and if he can rediscover top form against bottom-placed Northern in the upcoming encounter at the Jinnah Stadium in Sialkot, he would probably cement his spot for the Brisbane Test.
Among the remaining members of the Test squad not involved in the forthcoming Twenty20 International series against Australia, the pace duo of Mohammad Abbas (Southern Punjab) and Shaheen Shah Afridi (Northern) won’t be in action over the next four days of first-class cricket.
Fifth-round schedule (Oct 28-31):
First XI: Balochistan vs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (Bugti Stadium, Quetta); Central Punjab vs Sindh (Iqbal Stadium, Faisalabad); Southern Punjab vs Northern (Jinnah Stadium, Sialkot).
(Tabulated under played, won, lost, drawn, points):
Central Punjab 4 2 0 2 67
Southern Punjab 4 1 0 3 49
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 4 0 0 4 42
Sindh 4 0 1 3 34
Balochistan 4 0 1 3 34
Northern 4 0 1 3 32
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2019