Revamped tournament aims to generate interest
Pakistan cricket history is as old as the country itself. The Quaid-e-Azam trophy - the country's premier first-class competition - has been a testing ground for cricketers in the domestic circuit since 1953. This year, 14 teams including Bahawalpur will compete in a newly revamped structure and is a chance for players to impress ahead of Pakistan's South Africa tour in January 2013.
The new structure promises improved competition among evenly-matched teams. The new regional teams are allowed to recruit five players from the old department sides, of whom four can be part of the playing XI. The 14 regional teams have been divided into two groups of seven, with top four teams from each group progressing to the super-eights while the remaining six would be playing in the plate league. The league toppers will contest in their respective league finals. Either way, each team will at least play eight matches apart from the final
In a bid to give bowlers exposure to internationally-recognised cricket balls, the board has also made the use of Kookaburra balls mandatory for the tournament.
Such measures have been taken by the board to revive national interest in the first-class game. Cricket is the most popular sport in Pakistan, but that interest seldom trickles beyond international matches - a far cry from the eighties and nineties when fans used to regularly flock the venues to watch players like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, etc. practice in the nets.
Karachi Whites and Karachi Blues
Karachi is Pakistan's biggest and the most successful regional cricket association having won the trophy 19 times. The city has two teams in the competition - Whites and Blues. The Whites are led by fast bowler Mohammad Sami and boast of prolific batsmen like Fawad Alam, Asad Shafiq, Khalid Latif and Saeed Bin Nasir. The Blues, captained by former Test batsman Faisal Iqbal, have a promising fast-bowling line-up with Tanvir Ahmed, Tabish Khan and Anwar Ali.
The Whites, more successful of the two teams with a hat-trick of titles between 1990 and 1992-93, won their last title in 2002 and last year, finished third in Division 2, while the Blues were led to their eighth title by Sami in 2009.
After a successful debut in this season's Faysal Bank T20 Cup, Bahawalpur are all set to make a return to first-class cricket after nearly a decade. Bahawalpur were the winners of the inaugural Quaid-e-Azam trophy in 1953 when they beat Punjab in the final. They won their second title in 1958. During the 200304 overhaul of domestic cricket, Bahawalpur were merged with the Multan region.
Rehan Rafiq, an opening batsman who has played for WAPDA and Habib Bank in the absence of his native regional team, will lead the Bahawalpur side this season. The squad is relatively inexperienced and the team mainly relies on veteran allrounder Bilal Khilji, seamers Kamran Hussain and Mohamamd Talha.
A renowned Twenty20 side, Sialkot won the 2005-06 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Golden League. Though they failed to defend their title the following year, they came hard to clinch it again in 2009.
The combination of 20 players is centered on left-arm batsman Haris Sohail, who made 673 runs at 134.60 with four hundreds in the President Trophy for Zarai Taraqiati Bank Limited. He was rewarded with a national call-up when the selectors chose him in the ODI squad for the India tour. Left-arm fast bowler Naved Arif, who immigrated to England last year, has returned to play for his native domestic side as an overseas player.
Left-arm spinner Abdur Rehman, who has been serving a 12-week ban after testing positive for cannabis during his stint with Somerset, is back in action. Another promising left-arm spinner Raza Hasan was left out due to his career-threatening spine injury, which had also ruled out him from the ongoing tour of India.
It is always difficult to see a Rawalpindi side without Mohammad Amir and the dashing Mohammad Wasim but life goes on. A hugely talented side, Awais Zia, Umar Amin and Mohammad Nawaz are the spirit of the team now. Rawalpindi perhaps never were the favorites and have never won the title but the region is always busy in producing quality players for the national level.
Umar Waheed, a promising middle-order batsman from the Under-19 circuit will kick off his first-class career this year while all-rounder Nawaz will have to shift gears after his showing for Pakistan U-19s last year. Zia, who has been desperately waiting for the trophy to start, is ready to take flight. Amin has already asserted his case in the President Trophy. He was the leading run-scorer, with 767 in nine matches at 45.11 and will be put through another test ahead of the South Africa tour.
It has been more than ten years now since Lahore -believed to be the biggest nursery for national cricketers in the country - won a national title. The last time was in 2001. Like Karachi, Lahore also have two teams. They had a poor season last year, finishing second-last in Division Two, and managed to win only one match against Multan, who were glued tightly to the bottom with zero points. Shalimar suffered seven defeats with one drawn game against a depleted Quetta side.
This year, they start their campaign after losing key players to the national side for the India tour, leaving Shalimar with the inexperienced lot. In the absence of Mohammad Hafeez, Umar Akmal, Kamran Akmal and Wahab Riaz, Shalimar will have to rely on the veteran batsman Mohammad Yousuf. Along with fast bowler Aizaz Cheema, Zia-ul-Haq and Mohammad Irfan will be the core of the bowling attack.
Peshawar have retained the core of the side that beat Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited in the final of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Division Two last year. They were the underdogs but finished unbeaten in the division and were supposed to be promoted to Division One if the same structure had been followed this year.
Peshawar are mainly centered on their batsmen Akbar Badshah and Mohammad Fayyaz, who were the second and third-leading run-getters in their division. Adding Israrullah to the mix makes it a formidable batting line-up. Their bowling attack is dominated by fast bowlers such as Imran Khan, the President Trophy's third-leading wicket-taker, and Waqar Ahmed, who picked up 60 wickets last year for Peshawar.
This year, they are entering the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy with a reputation to carry on. They are certainly the favorites on paper and look good to finish among the top teams before going into the super-eight. They have earlier won the national championship in 1998-99 and 2004-05.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent