Pakistan news April 20, 2011

United Bank back in the big time

UBL 316 (Sharjeel Khan 133) and 154 for 3 decl (Sharjeel Khan 103*, Mughal 3-79) beat Medicam Group 153 (B Khan 43, S Ahmed 4-35, M Irshad 4-65) on first-innings lead

After an absence of nearly 15 seasons from top-flight first class cricket, one of Pakistan's most famous domestic teams, United Bank Limited (UBL), is set to make a return in next season's Quaid-e-Azam (QEA) trophy.

On Tuesday, UBL won the PCB's Patron's Trophy Grade II final, beating Pak Medicam on first-innings lead in a rain-interrupted final at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium. That win meant the side has now qualified to play in the QEA trophy division II next season. It will be the team's first appearance in top-flight cricket since January 1997, when, in their last match as a first-class side, they defeated another domestic powerhouse and long-term rival Habib Bank Limited (HBL) in the final of the Patron's Trophy to win it for the first and only time in their history.

UBL joined the first-class circuit in 1975, a decade in which a number of banks entered the first-class scene, offering players employment and an opportunity to play premier first-class level domestic cricket. The move was part of the BCCP's restructuring of Pakistan's domestic cricket, to involve departments such as banks and airlines in the domestic structure. UBL arrived on the circuit after a merger with the now-defunct Commerce Bank, which had been on the first-class scene since 1973.

From thereon, they proceeded to become one of the scene's giants, winning the QEA four times, the Pentangular thrice, and the Patron's Trophy once, in addition to several limited-overs titles. More importantly perhaps, they produced - or nurtured - a procession to talent that served Pakistan well over the years. Sadiq Mohammad, Haroon Rasheed, Sikander Bakht, Ashraf Ali, Ehteshamuddin, Mansoor Akhtar, Tauseef Ahmed, Mudassar Nazar, Basit Ali, Saeed Anwar, Mushtaq Ahmed, Salim Jaffer, Rashid Latif, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Waqar Younis and Azhar Mahmood, among others, all played for UBL at one point or another in the bank's time.

The privatisation of the bank and a subsequent change in management in 1997 brought an end to the bank's sports department, at a time when a number of other banks and organisations also pulled out for financial reasons. But their ground, the UBL Sports Complex, was kept on as a first-class ground in Karachi as was the academy. The former Test batsman Mansoor Akhtar, who now heads the bank's sports department, continued to push the management, however, to invest in sports again.

"I was involved with the UBL sports complex after the sports department shut down and the academy as well, and kept pushing for sports to re-start," Akhtar told ESPNcricinfo. Five seasons ago, the bank's management agreed and UBL returned to the second tier of domestic cricket, Grade II. This season, with a young side made up mostly of its own academy products, they have won the Grade II title and finally returned.

"We have eight players in our side from our academy and they have been exceptional this season," Akhtar said. "Guys like Sharjeel Khan [the young, left-handed opener who hit two centuries in the final] and Saad Sukhail [another left-handed top order batsman who came to the UBL academy when he was 10] have done really well for us and will be big prospects over the coming years."

The bowling is led by former Test fast bowler Shabbir Ahmed, who also captained the side this season, and includes one-time tearaway quick Mohammad Irshad and Rumman Raees Khan, a left-arm fast bowler Akhtar is particularly excited about. Though Akhtar is keen to keep the bulk of the side and a number of players, such as former U19 talent and Karachi regular Ali Asad, have sufficient first-class experience for regional sides, in any case.

But he realises a few big-name acquisitions may have to be made if UBL are to be competitive next season. "We will speak to the management about getting some big names because Grade II to Grade I is a big leap. But we have done it now and it's amazing. We're hoping that soon we can put UBL back on the path to those glory days that we are so proud of."

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of ESPNcricinfo