Alam stars in fatigue-heavy season
As the curtains drew on Pakistan's domestic season with the Pentangular Cup, astoundingly nearly eleven months after a not-so-grand opening in June 2006, huge sighs of relief were clearly audible even from the domestic-double winners Habib Bank Limited (HBL). Given the number of stars that don their jerseys, HBL's presence on the podium was not surprising. Thus the mismatches of the Pentangular Cup finally bid adieu to the aching bodies of players, of whom a substantial number will head for the lucrative, and cooler, shores of club cricket in the UK.
The season said hello to new rising stars, in particular Under-19 alumni including Fawad Alam, Anwar Ali and Sarfraz Ahmed, reacquainted us with one old horse, Ijaz Ahmed, after a six-year absence and had the now-customary Shoaib Akhtar controversy: fined for not wearing the requisite sponsor logo.
On the field, Karachi Urban lifted the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, Pakistan's elite first-class tournament, the first triumph from the once-dominant coastal city in the last five years. Once upon a time Karachi teams almost owned the trophy, having won it no less than six times in the 90s.
The 18th such triumph of a Karachi side was constructed largely on the back of that staunchest of Karachiites, Hasan Raza, who in his 10th first-class season at the age of 25 led the side with over 500 runs in seven matches. His season-best 161 in the final against defending champions Sialkot, taking Karachi from 261 for 8 to 403, sealed the deal. Off-spinner Tahir Khan and seamer Rajesh Ramesh took 59 wickets between them to provide valuable support.
And Karachi's revival almost stretched to the shorter format as well, a Shahid Afridi-led Karachi Dolphins blasting their way to the Twenty20 final only to lose to reigning champions Sialkot. Given that they were up against a side including internationals Imran Nazir, Shoaib Malik, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Abdur Rehman and Mohammad Asif, it wasn't so surprising. As consolation for the Dolphins, the 21-year old flair of Alam did announce itself to the world, even temporarily tormenting bigger names in the final with a five-wicket haul and a fifty.
Departments then entered the stage to flex their muscles and they don't come much bigger than HBL, already the winners of eight Patrons Trophy titles. With an array of international executors at their disposal, they duly lifted the Patron's Trophy without breaking a sweat. Literally. An unbeaten streak of seven games, courtesy heroics from Shahid Afridi, Taufeeq Umar and Azhar Mahmood in particular, placed them air miles ahead of the rest of the pack.
The ABN AMRO Cup was grabbed, without a second thought, by the Peshawar Panthers who thrashed a severely depleted Sialkot Stallions. But the biggest impression was created outside, with Alam again shining, finishing as the second highest scorer and third highest wicket-taker in the tournament. His time came soon after though, as he thrust his departmental employers, National Bank to their maiden Patron's Cup ODI triumph against HBL.
And onto the last, and surely the least of the lot, the Pentangular Cup, aimlessly combining the best departments and the best provinces (Sind, Punjab and a combined NWFP-Baluchistan squad). The timing, the need, the organising, and even the attitude of players all were questioned in searing temperatures amid zero interest from the public. HBL demolished one and all with one great final effort, Imran Farhat, Raza again and left-arm spinner Rehman coming together in a pleasant banking fury to lead them through.
Crowd presence and excitement surrounding the tournaments remained poor and even the floodlit Twenty20, the premier domestic attraction in the last two years, didn't pull in as many as hoped. Coaches and players complained about the overly-packed season and the quality of pitches. They complained too about the inferior quality of balls, while players questioned the lack of financial rewards for turning out for a domestic season. No surprise then so many ditched the unpredictable pitches of Karachi to put their feet up before hectic club commitments out West.
New kid on the block
Roll out the red carpet for Alam who not only swept away the awards ceremony for the Twenty20 with more prizes than he had room for on his ride, but also experienced bowlers throughout the season. All-round promise with bat and ball, his dedication and commitment bore fruit finally with a call-up to national camp and a likely breakthrough to the senior squad. Get his senior jersey stitched up, guys.
That of Ijaz Ahmed, after six years of inactivity for Sialkot. He even managed a 68 in the Quaid final against Karachi. But barring that cameo, his sojourn remained highly ineffective.
Quantity vs Quality?
Raza ended up playing 30 domestic matches through the season, including ODIs and Twenty20 matches. He's lucky he wasn't called up for Pakistan's various international commitments through the season: Imran Farhat, who was, ended up playing 36 matches all told. Is there really a need for so many ODI tournaments, two big first-class tournaments, a Twenty20 and a Pentangular, plus various inter-district, grade-level games?
Faras Ghani is an editorial assistant with Cricinfo