By Sohail Ali

LAHORE, Dec 13 (APP): Following three exciting results in the previous round, the eighth round of the first-class Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, which commences tomorrow Monday, promises to sustain the momentum as teams fight for the top two slots which will enable their qualification for the five-day new year’s final.

As anticipated, the points table further spiced up following Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s rise to the top after a stellar innings and 37 runs victory against Sindh, which helped them grab as many as 25 points, the most for any team in the seventh round.

Central Punjab’s resurgence has put the title defenders on the fourth spot from the bottom of the points table after two back-to-back wins.

Southern Punjab, who slipped to third spot following their defeat to Northern in the sixth round after spending four rounds at the top of the table, are just one point behind second-ranked Northern following their thumping win over Balochistan, who slipped one place to fifth position.

Sindh continue to have a poor run of form following their win in the season opener. In their six matches since, they have lost three; two of those defeats have come in their last two matches, and drawn three.

With only two rounds remaining after this one, Sindh, captained by Asad Shafiq, will be eager to accumulate maximum points and finish on a high.

Balochistan v Central Punjab at State Bank Stadium:

Central Punjab have staged an impressive comeback with two big wins against Sindh (by 227 runs in the sixth round) and Northern (by six wickets in the seventh round) and will be eager to further stretch this winning streak when they take on Balochistan, who also have lost three of their last six matches following their solitary win in their first match of the 2020-21 first-class season.

Captain Hasan Ali regaining fitness and form and spearheading the bowling attack since his return to the side has played a vital role in Central Punjab’s change of fortune. The pacer has taken 15 wickets in the last three matches and now sits at the eighth spot in the list of the highest wicket-takers with 20 scalps at an average of 21.05.

Contributions from Waqas Maqsood, who is the leading wicket-takers amongst the pacers to date with 28 wickets at 21.43, and 23-year-old left-arm orthodox Ahmed Safi Abdullah (28 wickets at 21.61) further strengthens the team’s bowling unit. Waqas is ranked third and Ahmed is ranked fifth in the list of bowlers with most wickets.

Hasan, however, would be hoping that their batsmen join the party towards the business end of the tournament. Despite restricting Northern to 243 in their last outing, Central Punjab fell nine runs behind their opponents in the first innings, which underscore their batting woes, and lost four wickets in their chase of 166.

Balochistan had a forgettable outing in the previous round as they slipped from 154 for two to 199 all out in their second innings, courtesy a scorching seven for 35 by pacer Zia-ul-Haq, to lose to Southern Punjab by a heavy 205-run margin.

Their captain Bismillah Khan would be hoping for a better batting display. The team’s leading run-scorer Akbar-ur-Rehman, the 37-year-old right-handed batsman, has made 445 runs at 44.50 and is the eighth top run-getter in the season. However, the gulf between their best and the second best batsman, Ali Waqas (360 runs at 40), is so vast that he is 20th in the same list, which Balochistan will be eager to fill as the tournament progresses.

Their bowlers have put some of the most impressive individual performances. Taj Wali leads them with 23 wickets in seven outings and their next best bowlers are Kashif Bhatti (19 wickets at 44.68), Jalat Khan (18 wickets at 26.61) and Khurram Shahzad (18 wickets at 27.89). They are ranked sixth, ninth, 10th and 11th on the list of bowlers with most wickets.

Sindh v Northern at National Stadium (broadcast fixture):

The National Stadium will host the teams, who are arguably the most eager to secure a win at this crucial juncture. Both teams enter the round at the back of defeats which have seen Northern getting displaced from the top of the table and Sindh slip to the bottom from the fourth position.

In their last face-off, Northern defeated Sindh by 128 runs.

Northern captain Nauman Ali has been in red-hot form and is the only bowler in the tournament to date to have breached the 50-wicket mark. The 24-year-old left-arm orthodox has 54 scalps at 20.67 and is the only bowler with five five-wicket hauls. He will continue to spearhead his team’s bowling attack, especially after impressive match figures of 11 for 153 in the previous match.

Their batting line-up has been held together by Hammad Azam (641 runs at 64.10), Umar Amin (558 runs at 50.73) and Mohammad Nawaz (531 runs at 59) who are fourth, fifth and sixth top run-getters in the season.

Sindh’s Sharjeel Khan has scored three half-centuries in last four innings and his captain Asad will be hoping that his bat continues to produce runs in front of the broadcast cameras, which will telecast action in Pakistan through PTV Sports and beam it across the globe through PCB’s YouTube channel.

Twenty-five-year-old Saud Shakeel scored a fifty in his last innings which augurs well for Sindh as the left-hander has been anchoring their batting department over the course of the tournament. With 657 runs at 50.54, he is the third best batsman.

Tabish Khan, the 36-year-old right-arm pacer, remains Sindh’s most successful bowler with 22 scalps at 30.82 runs per dismissal.

Southern Punjab v Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at UBL Sports Complex:

This promises to be another exciting encounter with both teams vying for the top spot as Southern Punjab are 14 points behind the table-topper Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (117 points).

The match will bring two of the best three spinners in the competition face-to-face. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Sajid Khan is the second best bowler with 46 wickets at 22.57 and Southern Punjab’s Zahid Mahmood has the third most wickets (39 wickets at 22.69).
Kamran Ghulam and Salman Ali Agha to leading batsmen of the season will also be pitted against each other.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kamran Ghulam’s both centuries have come in his last two matches and is currently the leading run-getter with 713 runs at an average of 54.85. The 25-year-old right-handed batsman has also scored three half-centuries.

Southern Punjab’s Salman Ali Agha has crunched one century and five half-centuries which has helped him amass 665 runs at 66.50. The 27-year-old right-handed batsman is the second highest run-getter in the season.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s all four wins have come in the last five matches, while Southern Punjab have won one, lost two and drawn two in their last five outings.

When these teams came face to face earlier this season, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa won by 75 runs.