KARACHI (Monitoring Desk): If Habib Bank Limited (HBL) fail to make their second straight final of the Quaid-i-Azam Trophy National Cricket Championship, they will have a valid reason for missing out — the somewhat contentious T10 league which has demeaned the status of Pakistan’s premier first-class event.
Currently sitting two points behind Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) in Group-I, HBL head into their last Super Eight fixture on Friday with a virtual second XI against Lahore Whites at the NBP Sports Complex.
Regular skipper Ahmed Shehzad, in-form strike bowler Umar Gul and all-rounder Fahim Ashraf join Fakhar Zaman to make quick bucks from the frivolous four-day league in Sharjah, which clashes directly with the Super Eight fixtures this week.
While international duty and the Bangladesh Premier League already saw Fakhar and Junaid playing a handful of matches in the championship for their local employers, HBL have not been just hit hard by injuries to Junaid and Usman Khan Shinwari but Imam-ul-Haq is uncertain to play due to a foot infection.
But despite them being absent for most of the championship, last season’s runners-up HBL have done exceptionally well to come within touching distance of a repeat final against Wapda, the department which won the title on first innings lead.
Although Lahore Whites have lost both their Super Eight matches, the regional outfit could turn it around by killing off HBL’s title hopes with a consolation win.
After their stunning turnaround victory against Lahore Whites, SNGPL have now emerged as firm favourites to reach the final, in the wake of HBL’s precarious situation. But Mohammad Hafeez’s men are aware of the threat Lahore Blues offer, particularly their portent bowling line-up led by the evergreen Aizaz Cheema.
Thus, the clash at the Niaz Stadium in Hyderabad assumes significant importance because if Lahore Blues — who have already outgunned Lahore Whites by nine wickets in the first round — come out winners and HBL lose or even draw against Lahore Whites, then they would be progressing to the Dec 21-25 final as Group-I qualifiers.
Salman Butt-led Wapda, meanwhile, have mathematically already qualified for the title-decider after opening a 10-point cushion in Group-II by handing their nearest rivals United Bank Limited (UBL) a 57-run defeat last Tuesday.
Sui Southern Gas Company (SSGC), just like UBL, are 10 points behind the reigning champions who they face at the SBP Sports Complex — a venue where Waqas Maqsood and Mohammad Asif shared equally 18 wickets in Wapda’s demolition of Khan Research Laboratories in the first-round fixture.
It is highly unlikely that Wapda would miss Kamran Akmal dearly due to former Pakistan wicket-keeper/batsman’s T10 league commitment, given the depth in their squad.
Shoaib Malik, who has made a solitary appearance for SSGC this season first because of national duty and then owing to BPL engagements, has chosen to prefer T10 league over loyalty to his department.
After their demoralising defeat against Wapda, UBL prepare to host KRL at the UBL Sports Complex without the international trio of Umar Akmal, Sohail Khan and Rumman Raees Khan, all of whom have committed themselves to the Sharjah event.
It is a real shame that the focus this week will be on T10 league due to the presence of more than 20 Pakistani cricketers rather on a first-class tournament which was held in high esteem by a number of former greats who regularly pledged themselves whenever free from Pakistan duty.
Third round schedule (Dec 15-18):
Group-I: Habib Bank Limited vs Lahore Whites (NBP Sports Complex, Karachi): Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited vs Lahore Blues (Niaz Stadium, Hyderabad).
Group-II: United Bank Limited vs Khan Research Laboratories (UBL Sports Complex, Karachi); Water and Power Development Authority vs Sui Southern Gas Company (SBP Sports Complex, Karachi).