The attendance in Karachi’s National Stadium stands was sparse for a Friday night HBL Pakistan Super League (PSL) encounter. But when Azam Khan played for Islamabad United, the sparse crowd chanted his name in unison. Their chants were loud enough to make the venue seem jam-packed.
After all, what was happening in front of their eyes, was exhilarating, exciting and worth every penny of the ticket price.
For Quetta Gladiators, Azam’s show was nothing less than shocking. After Sarfaraz Ahmed’s bowlers reduced United to 71-4 by the halfway stage, the burly right-hander went on to prove he was one of the best power-hitters in Pakistan, plundering the Quetta bowlers for 97 runs off 42 balls — an innings studded with nine fours and eight jaw-dropping sixes.
He got the perfect support from another power-hitter in Asif Ali, who hit a four and four sixes in his 24-ball knock for 42, which added to the duo’s partnership of 98 off 45 balls for the fifth wicket as United posted 220-6.
It was too much for Quetta to deal with as they saw themselves fall short by 63 runs, registering their fourth defeat in five matches.
Barring Colin Munro’s 38 off 22 before the New Zealander was castled by emerging pacer Aimal Khan, the United top order failed to deliver.
Rahmanullah Gurbaz, who had scored a blistering half-century against Peshawar Zalmi a day earlier fell early to a brilliant fielding effort by Iftikhar Ahmed while Rassie van der Dussen also failed to stay for long at the crease.
United captain Shadab Khan, who himself was cleaned up by Odean Smith, must have been questioning his decision of batting first after winning the toss.
But as soon as Azam arrived on the crease, Shadab’s doubts must have vanished. After Asif commenced his fireworks with a pull for six off Aimal, Azam caressed Mohammad Nawaz’s left-arm spin past extra cover for his first boundary.
Azam hit the first of his sixes with a stylish shot off Smith to wrap up the 13th over. The powerful batter executed an even better hit when he exposed his stumps to loft Nawaz to make the ball travel the distance over the long-off boundary after Asif had swept the spinner for a four.
The 24-year-old Azam was hardly differentiating between the Quetta spinners and pacers.
He squeezed Naseem Shah past point before smashing the pacer over his head for two fours in the 15th over. He brought up his 50 in 29 balls with a guided shot past short third man for another boundary off Aimal before Asif slashed the quick over cover for a six. Azam finished the over with an uppercut for another six.
The 17th over saw Asif and Azam hit three sixes off Mohammad Hasnain’s pace before the former finally faltered and fell to Shah, who saw himself punished by Azam for bowling a shorter one as the batter found the gap between short third man and point. He pulled Hasnain for two huge sixes before going down on his knees and sweeping for another audacious maximum as United crossed the 200 mark.
After Faheem Ashraf had played his part with two fours and a six, Azam thrashed Smith for another boundary and a maximum before getting castles by the West Indies all-rounder, narrowly missing out on the record for the fastest century in PSL history. Nonetheless, Quetta were already under piles of misery.
The Gladiators’ response was far from satisfactory. And if they showed signs of posing a fight, it was when Mohammad Hafeez (48 off 26) and Sarfraz Ahmed (41 off 35) were playing.
After the pair’s fourth-wicket partnership of 69 off 45 balls ended with Hafeez’s dismissal by Afghan pacer Fazal Haq Farooqi, Quetta never really got going.
After Farooqi had cleaned up opener Martin Guptill with a sharp in-swinger and spinner Abrar Ahmed had sent Will Smeed — playing his first match this season — and Jason Roy back to the dugout early, Hafeez counter-attacked by smashing pacer Hasan Ali over the covers before scooping him for a six.
The veteran batter guided Faheem’s medium pace behind for another boundary in the sixth over before Sarfraz pulled the pacer for a flat six over square leg with 61-3 on the board by the end of the powerplay.
Hafeez hit another four and a big six over long on off Hasan in the ninth over as Quetta looked for the first time threatened to snatch the game from United, but the right-hander’s stay at the crease ended two overs later, with the Gladiators reeling at 94-4.
The incoming Iftikhar’s 39 off 27, which saw the muscular batter hit three fours and two sixes, only played damage control for the Quetta outfit before Hasan took two more wickets and Farooqi and Shadab took one more each to bowl out their opponents for 157 with five balls to spare.
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