A better domestic final than that of the Faysal Bank Super Eight T20 in Faisalabad is difficult to recall, certainly from recent memory. The favourites - Karachi Dolphins - didn't win it, which is always a good script for finals to follow, while other big sides, like Sialkot, Lahore and Faisalabad, fell by the wayside. It was a berserk climax; Rawalpindi Rams lost wickets regularly but managed to stay alive till they entered the final over, needing nine to win with two wickets in hand.
Umar Amin lofted Azam Hussain for six off the second ball and with two balls to go, the scores were level. The game should've been over, yet Hussain's left-arm spin accounted for the last two wickets off successive balls - the last, deliciously and bravely floated up, spun away and produced a stumping - and a Super Over.
In it, Rawalpindi took 16 off the tournament's best bowler, Sohail Khan. Karachi's chase against the left-arm spinner Raza Hasan began with a six, had a wicket go down next ball, a catch dropped third ball and a stumping appeal turned down off the fourth. Hasan's final three balls were dots and amid crazy tension, the over lasted what felt like 20 minutes. Unfancied Rawalpindi, led by Sohail Tanvir, duly exploded in joy. The crowd, another packed house, joined in. Karachi - and they've lost enough Twenty20 finals now to be called chokers - were appropriately despondent.
Nobody does a post-match presentation ceremony quite like the PCB and broadcaster Geo Super, so there was a whole squad - 14 in all - of officials of all shapes, sizes and designations, lined up to hand out awards. They should've been the ninth team of the tournament. It was a memorable ceremony as well, single-handedly livened up by Sohail Khan's honest confession that he dreaded returning to Karachi empty-handed to a possibly hostile reception, "moo kaala ho ke" (faces blackened in disgrace).
The presentations host Sikander Bakht, former fast bowler, TV personality, commentator and now father figure, then told Khan off on live TV - politely - and reminded him what a great game it had been and that no side had been disgraced. Tanvir's shout out to his influential Rawalpindi coach Sabih Azhar, in its own way, was overdue acknowledgement. His response to Bakht's query of how the players will now party was beautifully bewildered: "Errr … maybe not here."
It capped quite a wonderful tournament, as energetically organised as it was supported and played. A number of big name Twenty20 specialists were missing, but you wouldn't have guessed it. There was enough feeling among the players involved, none more than in the Karachi-Sialkot semi-final. Though eventually one-sided, it was an electric, spicy game, fuelled by the feeling among Karachi players of being unfairly overlooked for national selection and by a Sialkot side that has lorded it over the domestic Twenty20 circuit for the last half-decade.
The stands held even greater passion. They don't just love their cricket in Faisalabad, they turn up to watch it. Previous Twenty20 tournaments in bigger cities have always pulled crowds on finals day, but evening matches through the week in Iqbal Stadium were near-full. Soon after the final ended fans managed to rush on to the ground, but it hardly felt like a security breach.
"They don't just love their cricket in Faisalabad, they turn up to watch it. Previous Twenty20 tournaments in bigger cities have always pulled crowds on finals day, but evening matches through the week in Iqbal Stadium were near-full. Soon after the final ended fans managed to rush on to the ground, but it hardly felt like a security breach"
Significantly, a sponsor was found for each of the eight sides, indicating that if done right, the private sector is willing to invest in Pakistani cricket. It was tackily done, but at least it was done. The winner's cheque of 2.5 million rupees wasn't a piddling amount and all the teams were put up at the leading hotel in the city (though the News reported that daily allowances were pitiably low).
With Pakistan due to tour Zimbabwe for a full series and Mohsin Khan eager to explore new options for the national Twenty20 side, a number of players put themselves in the picture. Karachi's Rameez Raja played two of the tournament's most explosive innings and only scored less than 29 once. He bears a fair physical resemblance to Salman Butt but is a different player altogether, more direct, less delicate. And he is not named, incidentally, after the other Rameez Raja.
It will also be difficult to ignore Khan, the leading wicket-taker, taking four in the semi-final and five in the final. He was much-hyped after his extraordinary debut season in 2007-08, when he took a record 91 wickets. In his first appearances for Pakistan he looked willing but limited, and fell away as Mohammad Amir took off. But over the last season he has progressed again, finishing with 69 wickets. He is smarter, more rounded now. He's still quick and hits the bat hard and high, but he has better control over lengths and far more variety than before; his slower balls are genuine wicket-taking deliveries.
There are others. Rawalpindi's Jamal Anwar was unlucky to be dismissed for a duck in the final, but his batting and glovework have looked good through the tournament. Raza Hasan has been a Pakistan prospect for over a year now and 11 very economical wickets over the week will do his chances no harm. Sharjeel Khan's batting here and for Pakistan A earlier mean the left-hand batsman could be one of the few players from Hyderabad to represent Pakistan.
The subplot through the week was what this could mean for the return of international cricket. The honest, realistic answer is not much - that it is not in the PCB's hands. But it is another timely confirmation that cricket here is not just about court cases, and dysfunctional players and management. It lives and it breathes. And to link it to international prospects is to belittle the domestic game, to imply that it serves no other purpose. Instead of worrying about when teams will tour Pakistan again, perhaps we should turn our attentions to the domestic scene once more and rejoice in it.