Duel between captains to make for thrilling finale
The most eagerly-contested domestic tournament in recent memory will hope for a fitting finale as the Punjab Stallions take on the Federal Areas Leopards at the National Stadium in Karachi on Wednesday.
The first-ever Pentangular ODI Cup has been a rousing one, and some basic ingredients have come in handy in providing a much-needed boost to domestic cricket in Pakistan.
The lack of international action has meant that all the big names have not only taken part, but have performed with considerable gusto. Shoaib Malik may not have convinced all with his Pakistan captaincy, but as leader of the undefeated Punjab Stallions, he has been immense: he is both the tournament's leading scorer and wicket-taker.
Enthusiastic televison coverage has also helped, and even though the audience at the venues have been small, TV has has considerably upped the interest around the country. The accompanying marketing campaign has been a triumph of persistence over creativity, but a triumph nonetheless.
Above all, the tournament has come at a time of isolation, of introspection; domestic cricket has been given the attention because there is no other cricket and it has been found to be not that bad and often pretty exciting.
There have been thrilling, closely-fought matches among the five well-matched teams. Even though the Baluchistan Bears and Federal Areas Leopards have had to draft in guest players, there have been thrilling encounters like the Federal Areas virtual semi-final clash against NWFP, and the Sind-Baluchistan match.
One of the few one-sided matches was the tournament opener between the two finalists, when Punjab prevailed by 98 runs and many will hope that a repeat is not on the cards. The portents however are promising in what should be a delicious match-up.
Punjab's batsmen, led by Malik, have been the galacticos of the tournament. Salman Butt's elegance has come through often enough, Azhar Ali has provided handy support and Kamran Akmal has chipped in with the odd cameo. Nasir Jamshed, in fact, has been the only real blip.
They come up against the tournament's most incisive bowling attack. Federal Areas captain Shoaib Akhtar has gone for runs but the nous, pace and above all, fitness, has been there. He has been supported well by Sohail Tanvir and Rao Iftikhar Anjum and in the unlikely event they all fail, Yasir Arafat and Saeed Ajmal are around to stabilise matters.
But the most intriguing battles, as ever in cricket, will be the specific ones. Punjab's Mohammad Talha has been the tournament's most exciting pace bowler. A skinny, young tearaway bowler with a bounding, energetic run-up, his performances have drawn the attention of selectors.
He will be up against the upright, compact and equally young figure of Umar Amin, the left-handed opener who has batted mostly at number four for Federal Areas. Amin's hundred against Baluchistan remains the innings of the tournament and as with Talha, his potential has not gone unnoticed by the selectors.
The spiciest battle is that between the captains. The friction between Malik and Shoaib is Pakistan's worst-kept secret. Part of the reason both captains have been so committed to this tournament, goes the cynics' tale, is that they have wanted to score points over each other.
In fact, Pakistan's captaincy never lies easy on any head and the battle between at least four captains or potential national captains - Misbah-ul-Haq, Shahid Afridi, Malik and Shoaib (Umar Gul was the fifth) - has been a tasty subplot all along.
Ultimately, though, the only thing Pakistanis will hope for from the final, after a year of total darkness, is some light from that most unexpected source - domestic cricket.
Punjab Stallions: (probable) 1 Shoaib Malik (capt) 2 Nasir Jamshed 3 Azhar Ali 4 Salman Butt 5 Adnan Raza 6 Sarfraz Ahmed 7 Mohammad Talha 8 Junaid Zia 9 Mansoor Amjad 10 Abdur Rehman 11 Umar Akmal (wk)
Federal Areas Leopards: (probable) 1 Shoaib Akhtar (capt) 2 Raheel Majeed 3 Babar Naeem 4 Umar Amin 5 Afaq Raheem 6 Usman Saeed 7 Mohammad Salman (wk) 8 Sohail Tanvir 9 Yasir Arafat 10 Iftikhar Anjum 11 Saeed Ajmal