Unbeaten NWFP hold the edge
Two of the unlikeliest of domestic cricket teams start their five-day quest for glory on Monday, as North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan meet in the final of the 2008-09 Pentangular Cup final at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.
In a prestigious five-team competition, traditionally dominated by teams representing the departments and commercial institutions over the last 35 years or so, it was not until the 2007-08 season when the tournament was given an almost full provincial colour.
Thus, last season Sind became champions of the Pentangular Cup title, with Federal Areas ending as runners-up. NWFP were third, but they remained a team not taken seriously. Baluchistan finished rock bottom and all Punjab could hold was a fourth position in the table.
This time round, with the last Pentangular Cup contest completed as recently as eight months ago, the top two teams have made it to the final in style and no one can grudge them their exalted position.
NWFP won all their four matches, the first three with the full points, while they came back from 37 runs behind Punjab to gain their fourth straight triumph. Baluchistan performed their first giant-killing act when they defeated Sind by a six-wicket margin in the second round.
Their best was yet to come. In the fifth and final round match against Federal Areas, after having been dismissed for 57 in their first innings, they attained a steep target of 393 to coast to a two-wicket victory, which helped book their passage to the final.
Sind, who failed to win any of their four encounters and in fact lost two, were third, Federal Areas fourth, while Punjab finished bottom.
Four of Punjab's players, who are also part of the national squad - captain Shoaib Malik, opener Salman Butt, wicketkeeper Kamran Akmal and offspinner Saeed Ajmal - didn't play in the crucial match against NWFP, even though they had returned from Abu Dhabi after thrashing West Indies.
Their absence cost Punjab dearly but, looking at Baluchistan's form, they might not have made the final anyway.
Like last season, under a brand new format, all five participating outfits belonged to the country's four provinces, in addition to a team representing the Federal Capital Area.
Although captain Umar Gul didn't rejoin the NWFP team on his return from Abu Dhabi, he should be ready to lead them in the final. Younis Khan represented them in the last match against Punjab, scoring unbeaten knocks of 75 and 24, but he will be unavailable after returning to South Australia to fulfill his professional commitments.
Baluchistan's enviable position this season has certainly been due to its outstation players. Of the main squad of 15, captain Misbah-ul-Haq comes from Faisalabad and nine others, including vice-captain Abdul Rauf, have been borrowed from Multan.
Batsman Saeed Bin Nasir, who has been the tournament's top scorer so far with 410 runs in four matches at an average of 68.33, has joined them from Karachi. Only four - left-handed opener Shoaib Khan, middle-order batsmen Nasim Khan and Taimur Ali and left-arm seamer Nazar Hussain - belong to the Quetta region.
Realistically speaking, NWFP should start as favourites to win.
The two umpires officiating will be Nadeem Ghauri and Zameer Haider with Anwar Khan appointed as the match referee.
NWFP: Umar Gul (capt), Yasir Hameed (vice-capt), Rafatullah Mohmand, Aftab Khan, Adnan Raees, Riaz Kail, Zulfiqar Jan (wk), Nauman Habib, Waqar Ahmed, Junaid Khan, Shakeel-ur-Rehman, Yasir Shah, Aslam Qureshi, Wajid Ali, Shoaib Khan.
Baluchistan: Misbah-ul-Haq (capt), Abdul Rauf (vice-capt), Shoaib Khan, Usman Tariq, Saeed Anwar, Nasim Khan, Saeed Bin Nasir, Rameez Alam, Taimur Ali, Kamran Hussain, Azharullah, Mohammad Irshad, Nazar Hussain, Gulraiz Sadaf (wk), Bilal Khilji.