By Sohail Ali

LAHORE, Dec 19 (APP): The first-class Quaid-e-Azam Trophy 2020-21 has produced exciting contests. Its penultimate round, beginning tomorrow Sunday, promises riveting red-ball cricket as the battle to secure the top two positions on the six-team points table, which secures the berths in the five-day final at the National Stadium from 1-5 January, continues to heat up.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa v Central Punjab at National Stadium (broadcast fixture):

The two teams are enjoying an impressive run of form as they enter the match at the back of three consecutive wins. The four-day match between them will be broadcast live in Pakistan through PTV Sports and will be beamed across the globe through PCB’s YouTube channel.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with their last win over Southern Punjab by 10 wickets, consolidated their position at the top of the six-team points table and enjoy a 29-point lead over second-ranked Northern.

Their success has been built around solid contributions from Kamran Ghulam and Sajid Khan and their captain Khalid Usman will be hoping that their purple patch stretches into the upcoming round.

Kamran, the 25-year-old right-handed batsman, leads the chart for the batsmen with most runs this season with 873 runs at an average of over 62. He is the only batsman to date to cross the 800-run mark in this edition of the first-class Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and all of his three centuries have come in the past three matches.

Off-spinner Sajid has taken as many as 15 wickets in the last two matches, which include a second innings five-wicket haul against Sindh and a first-innings five-wicket haul against Southern Punjab.

After remaining at the bottom of the points table for the first half of the tournament, title defenders Central Punjab have staged an astonishing comeback, which has turned them into a formidable force. Their captain Hasan Ali has been at the forefront of the resurgence with 22 wickets and a blistering 50 not out in the three victories.

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Pacer Waqas Maqsood – the leading wicket-taker amongst the pacers with 34 scalps at 20.62 – and Ahmed Safi Abdullah (28 wickets at 24.14) have duly supported their skipper.

Ali Zaryab became the only Central Punjab batsman this season to register a century and the side will be pinning their hopes on the opener along with Usman Salahuddin, the 30-year-old middle-order batsman, who is the team’s leading run-scorer with 525 runs from eight matches.

Northern v Balochistan at UBL Sports Complex:
Nauman Ali-captained Northern enter the ninth round of the tournament at the back of splendid batting performances by 18-year-old Mubasir Khan and all-rounder Hammad Azam which helped them retain the second spot on the points table and stay contenders to play the second Quaid-e-Azam Trophy final in as many seasons.

Northern are certain to derive inspiration from the resilient 294-run alliance which ensured that their eighth round fixture against Sindh ended in a draw as Mubasir registered a valiant 164 on debut and Hammad, the tournament’s second best run-scorer, scored his second century of the season.

Nauman, himself, remains their primary bowling weapon as he with 55 wickets, which includes five five-fers, is the leading wicket-taker in the season.

Over the course of the last two rounds, Balochistan have slipped to the bottom of the points table from the fourth spot. After finishing the last season at the bottom of the points table, they will be hoping for a change of fortune starting this fixture. Since their win in the opening match, Balochistan have lost four and drawn three.

Thirty-five-year-old left-arm orthodox Jalat Khan is their leading wicket-taker with 24 dismissals, while Akbar-ur-Rehman has been their chief accumulator of runs as the 37-year-old has made 481 runs from six matches.

Sindh v Southern Punjab at State Bank Stadium:
Asad Shafiq-led Sindh started the last day of the previous round as favourites to win their second match of the season only to be denied by the gutsy knocks from Northern’s Mubasir and Hammad.

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The draw helped them climb one spot to number five, but it is the crucial 16 points for win, which they would be hoping to bag when their fixture against Southern Punjab begins at the State Bank Stadium.

Number three in the batting order, Saud Shakeel continues to have an impressive run with the bat as the 25-year-old has piled up 738 runs – third most in the season by the conclusion of the eighth round. Centuries (against Northern) from Sharjeel Khan, which has lifted him to the seventh spot in the list of the highest run-getters, and Asad have bolstered their batting unit.

Since earning a promotion in the First XI team, Shahnawaz Dhani has showcased brilliant bowling spells, which has earned him 20 wickets at 30.35 in five matches. The 22-year-old is yet to record a five-fer at the first-class level, something he would be hoping to check in the upcoming match.

Southern Punjab were at the end of a 10-wicket pounding from table-toppers Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in their last outing. They were forced to follow-on after which they could set a measly four-run target for the opposition which they chased in a mere three balls.

Zahid Mahmood, however, continued to live-up to the expectations as he returned yet another five-wicket haul with six for 163 and the 32-year-old Dadu-born, who has the third-most scalps this season, will continue to spearhead his team’s bowling attack.

Defiant half-centuries from Aamer Yamin (first innings 93) and Mohammad Umair (second innings 77) promise support for Salman Ali Agha, who is their team’s top-scorer with 716 runs at just under 60.