Pakistan's National T20 Cup gets underway today in Multan. Here is your detailed briefing of the 17th edition of the domestic competition.
What is the National T20 Cup?
The National T20 Cup held each year (or biannually for a couple of instances) in Pakistan is one of the oldest T20 leagues across the cricketing globe. It is different from the franchise-based Pakistan Super League, which hosts foreign stars and functions as a single entity with teams owned and controlled by investors.
Oh, so we get to see Shoaib Malik's Sialkot Stallions in action then?
No, the tournament's most successful team Sialkot Stallions ceased to operate 2016 onwards with the National T20 Cup's format converted to a provincial-based set-up in 2019. Northern are the incumbent champions of the six-team competition as they managed to defeat Balochistan in the final last year.
Where is it being held?
The first 14 matches will be staged in Multan before the tournament shifts to Rawalpindi for the rest of the 19 games. Contrary to the previous season, teams will play each other twice ahead of the knockout round in a bid to add more experience of the shortest format given the number of white-ball events organised by the ICC in the near future.
So, what's the big deal about the tournament?
The National T20 Cup officially kicks off Pakistan's domestic season that was recently under doubt owing to the coronavirus pandemic. However, Pakistan has been able to avoid a huge surge in infections compared to other countries in the region, welcoming the return of competitive cricket on its shores for the first time since the unfinished PSL 2020 in March.
The tournament will also serve as the lead-up to the remainder of PSL 2020, which will take place from November 14-17 in Lahore and is expected to be populated with international players.
Why must we be interested in a domestic event?
The PCB has invested heavily in revamping the broadcast quality as it signed a three-year deal with state broadcaster Pakistan Television (PTV) earlier this month, hoping to generate revenue in excess of USD 200 million. All matches will be telecasted live on PTV Sports in High Definition with the PCB announcing a high-profile commentary panel including Ramiz Raja, Wasim Akram, Zainab Abbas and Sana Mir to cover the tournament.
Moreover, the National T20 Cup offers a chance to the lesser recognised players to make a name for themselves and vault into the selection radar. Young talked about players such as Saif Badar, Muhammad Mohsin, Zeeshan Malik, Azam Khan, Akif Javed and Rizwan Hussain will have an opportunity to establish their credentials on the domestic arena.
Which team starts as favourites?
On paper, Northern seem strong enough to defend their title with Imad Wasim, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Nawaz and rookie leg-spinner Farzan Raja forming a diverse spin attack. The pace bowling department also has equal depth with the experienced duo of Mohammad Amir and Sohail Tanvir spearheading the charge while the power-hitting domain is led by Asif Ali and Haider Ali.
Other sides have their strengths too but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa appear to be the most powerful contenders of the lot since their bowling harbours the presence of Wahab Riaz, Shaheen Shah Afridi and Junaid Khan while the batting combination gleams with veterans Shoaib Malik, Mohammad Hafeez, Fakhar Zaman and Iftikhar Ahmed in the mix.
Any notable absentees we won't get to see this year?
Imad Wasim will have to wait until the Rawalpindi leg to join his team as he is currently busy with Nottinghamshire in the T20 Blast with Shadab Khan set to perform captaincy duties in the meantime.
Central Punjab are hit with the loss of their regular players like Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal, Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf for different reasons. The trio of Shehzad, Ali and Ashraf have been ruled out for fitness concerns while Akmal is observing an 18-month ban from all cricket activities for failing to report corrupt approaches. The absence of these players paints a grim picture for Central Punjab, who finished last in the 2019 National T20 Cup.
Additionally, Rumman Raees will not turn out for Sindh after repeatedly failing to reach optimal levels of fitness. Salman Butt also briefly hogged the limelight when he refused to be demoted to Central Punjab's Second XI and pulled out of the competition.
Any other context to be cognizant of?
The National T20 Cup will be Umar Gul's final appearance in competitive cricket as he has confirmed to step down from all forms of the game after this event. The 36-year-old, who was a key member of Pakistan's 2009 World T20-winning squad, is in the Balochistan line-up. Gul's teammate Imran Farhat will be hanging his boots by the end of the 2020-21 domestic season as well with the T20 Cup set to his swansong in the 20-over format.
The path of redemption for Sharjeel Khan prolongs as he would be hoping to light up the stage with his belligerent strokeplay. The burly left-handed batsman had a quiet stint with Karachi Kings in PSL 2020 barring a couple of explosive outings but would be looking to instill some consistency in his performances.
As ever, the wicketkeeping slot in Pakistan's T20I side continues to be clouded in uncertainty since the axing of Sarfaraz Ahmed as captain. The National T20 Cup thus offers old and fresh faces a chance to engage in the battle for the vacant wicketkeeper position. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top in the race between Sarfaraz, Mohammad Rizwan, Azam, Zeeshan Ashraf and Rohail Nazir.