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Unravelling the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan’s premier First Class Competition

Unravelling the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan’s premier First Class Competition

Editor’s Note: With the madness and joy of the PSL just beginning to fade, our selectors had many interesting choices to consider before the national team’s next tour to the West Indies. And given that all three formats will be played, there was a lot more to look at than just the premier T20 tournament. Hamza Khan spent several months going through the messy morass of the QeA Trophy to round up who had a great season and who didn’t. The piece has been divided into two parts, with Part I looking at the batting charts, and Part 2 looking at the bowling, as well as rounding up which conclusions are safe to draw, and which aren’t.

In the last season of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy saga, the format of the competition was once again revamped to include 16 teams divided into two pools, each a mix of departments and regions. This article is a summary of the trophy, the performances, the players that have stood out, what might interest the national selectors, and the problems in judging quality.

Batting Performances

At the end of the first phase, Abdul Rehman Muzammil led the runs’ tally with 665 runs, which was central to KRL’s early success. However, he could not deliver the same performances in the Super Eights stage, and at the end of the tournament (not counting the final), Kamran Akmal emerged as the clear leader scoring 1000 runs with 5 centuries.

The table below illustrates the top scorers before the Final:

Considering that players get called for international/representative sides, get injured, or play lesser innings, I have created a list of the Top 20 averaging batsmen with a minimum cut-off of 400 runs, to eliminate skewing of results that can happen in a ‘most runs’ table.

Asif Zakir, the tournament’s 2nd highest run scorer topped the list averaging 85.3 with four centuries, and while he feasted on batting friendly Sialkot where the average 1st innings team score was 337, he also had 2 centuries and about 40% of his runs at the lower scoring Karachi pitches. The potential revival of Usman Salahuddin would be encouraging for selectors, who was the 3rd highest run scorer averaging 70.25 this season. He particularly had a string of really impressive performances in important situations for his team, top scoring in numerous low to medium range team scores e.g. the Super 8s match against HBL in Karachi where he scored 112* out of 279 in the 1st innings and 56 out of 184 in the 2nd innings, top scoring in both.

What really came as a surprise was Kamran Akmal’s golden run. The senior Akmal had been in sensational form all season, (which he carried with him to top score in the PSL) batting higher up the order than he usually does for Pakistan. He didn’t just score runs but quality runs, particularly in the Super Eights phase. There, coming in at 25-4 against SSGC, he scored 144 and then coming in at 30-4 against SNGPL, he smashed 162. He scored centuries in 5 different cities, and succeeded in low scoring centers like Karachi (where he has scored 35% of his season’s tally) and Rawalpindi. However, he played just one match in Rawalpindi and didn’t play in Faisalabad, the lowest scoring center this season. This, for obvious reasons, makes me feel anxious. Kamran Akmal tends to do that to a Pakistani cricket fan.

On the other hand, Adnan Akmal’s performances (2 centuries & 2 half-centuries) also made headlines, as he scored 467 runs at an average of 42.4. However, his performances have only come in Lahore and Sialkot, the most batting friendly centers this season. Indeed, he averaged only 17.25 in Karachi from 8 innings, and missed out 2 games in Faisalabad. Mohammad Rizwan, the other contender just played 3 games this season before leaving with the national team for the away tours to New Zealand and Australia. In those 3 games he scored a sparkling 167 in Lahore and a match winning 95 in the 2nd innings against Karachi Whites. However, even though his keeping is considered top notch, Rizwan is yet to convince as a batsman at the international stage, following two miserable away tours. What this means is that both the senior and junior Akmal have claims to be the backup keeper in Rizwan’s stead, with the PSL certainly bolstering Kamran’s chances immensely.

Chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq’s selection team would also be pleased to see the progress of openers Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq and Ahsan Ali. Fakhar Zaman has had a great season where he averaged 51, culminating in an aggressive 170 in the 2nd innings of the final. Imam-ul-Haq, Zaman’s opening partner, had a more fluctuating season. He had a dismal start but really stepped up in the Super Eights with a 108 against NBP, a rearguard 86 in the 2nd innings against KRL, 129 against UBL and then with an unbeaten 200 in the final (although the last 80-100 runs were scored in a farcical situation where WAPDA deliberately bowled for a draw to win on a 1st innings lead). Keep in mind that Imam-ul-Haq played all Super Eight games and the final in Karachi, which as I have noted was one of the lower scoring venues.

Another opener who is worth discussing is Ahsan Ali, who opened for NBP with Nasir Jamshed (who had a woeful season). In the 6 matches Ahsan played this season, he scored 2 sensational hundreds, but those were the only scores of note for him. He began the season with a 200 off 202 balls against a FATA attack that would go on to register 3 wins in the competition. In the next match against a potent PIA attack of Najaf Shah, Anwar Ali and Aizaz Cheema, Ahsan Ali smashed 156 off 141 balls. He is currently just 22 years old, and has represented the Pakistan U-15 and U-19 teams.

Salman Butt also presented a strong case for selection, and certainly displayed a sense for the occasion; his best performance came in the televised final. He scored two hundreds in the final, with his 125 in the 1st innings ensuring an ultimately championship-securing lead for WAPDA. His 105* to bat out the final day to secure victory also cannot go unnoticed, regardless of the caveats attached to his past.

Batting averages are important here as Pakistan’s domestic cricket is notorious for low scoring matches - indeed if you look at some of the scorecards, you'd be horrified. Amidst all this, Fawad Alam crossed 10,000 first class runs, and although hasn’t stacked up big runs this season, he has continued his amazing consistency, averaging 55.4.

Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a comprehensive, detailed look at the recently concluded Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan’s premier first class competition. With the previous part focusing on batting, this one will look at bowling performances, as well as the conclusions to be drawn from the numbers.

Bowling Performances

Moving onto bowling records, the table below illustrates the Top 20 lowest averaging bowlers with a minimum cut-off of 25 wickets. Muhammad Abbas from KRL leads this list, and has taken 71 wickets at a barely believable average of 12.7. KRL formed an extremely potent pace trio with Ahmed Bashir (32 wickets at 17.8) and Sadaf Hussain (28 wickets at 23.07).

Although Sadaf Hussain didn’t have a prolific wicket taking year and certainly not one as successful as his overall career, he was still consistent. Abbas was followed by 17 year old Sameen Gul’s (who recently featured in Pakistan’s U19 World Cup campaign) 34 wickets at 13.5, which was an encouraging sign. His standout performance was 8/44 against a strong NBP side. Tabish Khan is 3rd on the list after taking 62 wickets at an average of 13.54 – he has been consistently excellent for a few seasons now, and is the main reason why Karachi Whites were able to make it to the next round.

Another bowler whose reputation has only got better is Mir Hamza, who recently toured England with Pakistan A. He was the 3rd highest wicket taker with 48 wickets at an average of 14.5, with his best innings figures of 7/59 coming against a strong SSGC side in Sialkot. The selectors might also want to follow the pace duo Asif Afridi and Irfanullah Shah of FATA who’ve taken 56 wickets together at an average of 17.9, giving FATA 3 wins this season. Given their success, the PCB must ensure that FATA’s progress is tapped into at the right time to promote the region’s cricket development.

For the runners-up HBL, Usman Khan Shenwari was the highest wicket taker (38 wickets in 10 games, followed by Abdul Rehman (31 wickets in 9 games) and Fahim Ashraf with 28 wickets, who has genuine all round potential. Although Fahim wasn’t able to make a big mark with the bat this season, he showed his batting potential in 2 critical situations: an innings of 63 made from 54-7 to take the overall score to 151 giving HBL a chance against KRL, which eventually resulted in an HBL victory; and in the Trophy Final with HBL 21-6 in the first session of the 1st day, scoring 44, staging a recovery that resulted in HBL posting 236, and ensuring they stayed in the final till the last day.

Much was made about Asif’s return in WAPDA colours. However, their attack was mainly carried by left-arm seamer Waqas Maqsood (32 wickets averaging 23.1), spinner Khalid Usman (34 wickets averaging 20), and the towering Irfan (21 wickets averaging 24.7). It is hard to judge whether Asif is ready for test cricket again. Although he showed glimpses of his skill in some of the domestic videos that went viral, and certainly his numbers do not shed him in bad light (19 wickets averaging 21.9), he only played 5 matches and has admitted to injury concerns and doubts about his fitness.

Let’s talk about spin now. Of the top 20 averaging bowlers in the table above, only four are spinners, three of whom are over 30 years old. Out of those, only Abdur Rehman from HBL and Khalid Usman from WAPDA were a regular part of their respective team. Khalid’s 8/63 against Lahore Blues however, in which he demolished Lahore Blues in their 2nd innings from 119/0 to 217 all out, were the 3rd best innings figures this season behind Muhammad Abbas and Sameen Gul. Even with excellent averages, Tahir Khan (26 wickets averaging 19.8) played just 4 games for PIA, and Mohammad Irfan (30 wickets averaging 22.4) played only 7 games for SSGC. Zulfiqar Babar from WAPDA also featured in just 5 games (20 wickets at an average of 27.6). This suggests that the pitches are not encouraging captains to play spinners. The twin spin attack Pakistan has fielded so much in recent years seems hardly replicated at the domestic level; it is alarming to see that a young prospect like Zafar Gohar plays just 6 first class games for their team in a season, due to another spinner in that team (Muhammad Irfan) featuring in 7 games.

From what I’ve seen over the past few years, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy has exhibited a consistent trend of low scoring matches, which points to a number of factors. Most notably, under prepared pitches leading to extremely difficult batting conditions; the time of the year during which domestic cricket is played in make it difficult to bat; and the disproportionate team strengths. Hence I’d say the performance of the bowlers needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

However, batsmen bucking the trend should be given a higher credit for their performances. A quick viewing of the past few games reflects an extremely bleak picture on the quality of pitches, and the quality of batsmen in the domestic circuit.

How do you rate and compare performances?

Having gone through the batting and bowling records in detail, one can’t help but present certain caveats that are needed to provide context to the whole situation. The big question surrounding all of these domestic performances is how do you compare players?

For example, the data for average scores city-wise varies a great deal. The journalist Hassan Cheema pointed out that at the end of the 1st phase of the trophy, Lahore saw 8 scores of 400-and-more in 24 1st innings. The rest of the country had 12 scores of 400-and-more in 88 1st innings; once every 3 innings in Lahore, once every 7 innings elsewhere! Now compare this with Rawalpindi, where 8 out of 12 1st innings ended with scores under 200. By the end of the tournament, 75% of 1st innings scores in Rawalpindi were under 250.

Add day-night matches to the mix and it only adds further variables; 1st innings scores in day-night matches range from team scores as low as 111 to as high as 715. Obviously, this has an impact on both batting and bowling performances, though admittedly, it may not always be strictly linear.

Then you add to the mix that not all teams play an even or at least similar number of games in different cities. For example, Tabish Khan has played all matches in Karachi. KRL’s pace trio has played more games in bowler friendly centers with just a single game each in Lahore and Sialkot, where they did decently but weren’t as fearsome as in other centres.

Department vs Region Mismatch

The key point to note here is that out of the 8 teams which qualified to the Super Eights, only one was a regional side (Karachi Whites).

Enough people have already spoken about how a large number of teams in a single grade is hurting the quality of cricket. Departments are able to field significantly stronger teams as their structure as an institution and as a team is far more stable than the regions, plus there’s the obvious difference in player salaries. This has an immediate impact on regional development; case in point Lahore and Karachi. Considering that departmental teams are able to grab their best players, the age old practice of fielding 2 teams each from Lahore and Karachi just does not make sense anymore. Lahore Blues and Karachi Blues ended at 6th and 8th positions in Pool A, while Lahore Whites ended at 7th position in Pool B.

Of the 35 matches played featuring a Department versus Region scenario, the departmental team won 20 matches, drew 11, and lost just 4 matches! All matches in the first 4 rounds featured a Department versus Region match, thus allowing players to beef up their stats against weaker sides without being potentially given some key reality checks. Hence Hassan Cheema’s statement, and it’s something with which I wholeheartedly agree: with so much cricket, with so much dilution of quality, how can anyone separate mediocrity from quality? How do you judge anyone?

Perhaps the selection committees feel the same conundrum as of late. Several players haven’t been selected despite stellar domestic performances. Tabish Khan, Sadaf Hussain, Mir Hamza have never debuted whereas Fawad Alam has only played 3 tests!

The constant change in the domestic structure doesn’t help. Among the many uncertainties in Pakistan cricket, structural change in its premier First Class competition every few years or so has become undeniably consistent and certain. It is no surprise that players don’t treat it with the importance it deserves, and that was made clear by the attitudes of Ahmed Shehzad and Umar Akmal, who both weren’t part of the test side, left the tournament midway to play in the BPL.

It's a sad indictment on Umar Akmal's priorities that while he’s out of the Pakistan team, he went off to play the BPL where he promptly proceeded to score two ducks in the first three games. This after he had scores of 74, 101, 50, and 8 in 2 FC matches, as captain of Lahore Blues. Similar was the case with Ahmed Shehzad – played only 3 first class matches before leaving for BPL. This when he’s out of the test team and the opening position is so desperately open that the selectors took Sharjeel Khan on the test tours to New Zealand and Australia. Picking a T20 league over FC cricket at this stage of their careers is certainly not ideal. But does this just show misplaced priorities, as is so often the case with these two, or also a lack of faith in the broken domestic system? Based on the issues discussed in this article, I suspect you could argue it either way.

"Hamza Ahmed Khan is a risk & Management consultant by profession who fell in love with cricket watching Saeed Anwar in the 1996 World Cup Quarter Final, and is currently a Younis and Fawad Alam junkie. Tweets as @GumbyAKhan"