KARACHI: As the National T20 Cup for the First XI teams headed towards business end with the culmination of the 30-match league round later on Friday night, the persistent race for remaining one last-four berth was up for grabs in a three-way tie.
After the rather inconsequential game between holders Northern and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the Pindi Cricket Stadium, the real battle was on in the garrison town between Balochistan and rank outsiders Southern Punjab when this report was being filed.
Firmly rooted at the base of six-team standings with just two victories in seven fixtures, Southern Punjab emerged out of nowhere as contenders for that spot late on Thursday night after decimating Sarfaraz Ahmed-led Sindh by a huge 70-run margin.
It was a remarkable turnaround for skipper Shan Masood and his charges. After choosing to bat first, Southern Punjab lost three wickets for mere eight runs at the start of fourth over.
But in a brilliant counterattack, Sohaib Maqsood and Khushdil Shah brought their side back in the contest as the right-left handed combination shared a magnificent partnership of 121 from 65 deliveries despite both being reprieved early on by the butter-fingered Sindh fielders.
Sohaib, who was declared man-of-the-match, bludgeoned 67 off 41 balls while striking six fours and four sixes. Khushdil, on the other hand, continued his excellent form to stake claims for the upcoming limited-overs series against Zimbabwe by striking five boundaries and three sixes in a buccaneering 32-ball 53.
The rampant duo made a mess of spinner Hassaan Khan’s analysis by taking 23 runs in one over and was equally severe on the medium-pacers of Anwar Ali, whose four overs went for 59 runs. All-rounder Aamir Yamin also played a good hand in the closing over by hitting 24 from 17 balls to enable Southern Punjab to reach a commanding 191-6.
Sindh’s response to their chase was extremely disappointing when they folded up for a miserable 121 all out in the 17th over. Khurram Manzoor was the top-scorer with a 35-ball 49 — that included seven boundaries — but the discarded Pakistan opener was livid when he got run out after a bad mix-up with Danish Aziz in the 13th over.
The left-handed Danish, who had earlier excelled with the ball by grabbing 3-32 with his slow left-armers, failed to repeat his heroics of the previous matches when he departed for only eight.
Leg-spinner Zahid Mahmood and paceman Mohammad Ilyas shared six wickets between them for 20 and 25 runs, respectively.
The simple equation which beckoned Southern Punjab before the last league-round fixture got underway — if they hope to make the semi-finals — was either to beat Balochistan by either 72 runs or get whatever their target is in 12.3 overs to grab that elusive fourth place. The first permutation has become redundant since Balochistan are batting after Haris Sohail opted to bat upon winning the toss.
At the other end of the scale, Balochistan only require to clinch victory to go through but case they don’t if the match to full distance, then the beneficiary of this result will be the Babar Azam-led Central Punjab side since they are currently fourth in the standings.
Meanwhile, Northern warmed up for Saturday’s first semi-final by completing an 11-run win over Khyber Pakhtunkhwa despite Wahab Riaz and young Mohammad Haris sharing the limelight.
Chasing 145, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — who take on Sindh in Saturday’s other semi-final — only mustered 133-7 with just Haris playing a worthwhile knock as the 19-year-old scored 59.40 percent of the entire team total. Opening the innings, the youngster batted through the 20 overs to make an unbeaten 79 off 70 balls (nine fours and one six).
Fast bowler Haris Rauf took 3-28 in another man-of-the-match effort, while captain Imad Wasim claimed 2-25 after top-scoring with a 20-ball 36 as Northern scored 144-9. Veteran Pakistan speedster Wahab Riaz starred with figures of 5-21.
Scores in brief:
Played on Friday:
Northern beat Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by 11 runs.
NORTHERN 144-9 in 20 overs (Imad Wasim 36, Zeeshan Malik 21, Umar Amin 21; Wahab Riaz 5-21); KHYBER PAKHTUNKHWA 133-7 in 20 overs (Mohammad Haris 79 not out; Haris Rauf 3-28, Imad Wasim 2-25).
Played on Thursday night:
Southern Punjab beat Sindh by 70 runs.
SOUTHERN PUNJAB 191-6 in 20 overs (Sohaib Maqsood 67, Khushdil Shah 53, Aamir Yamin 24; Danish Aziz 3-32, Sohail Khan 2-16); SINDH 121 in 16.4 overs (Khurram Manzoor 49; Zahid Mahmood 3-20, Mohammad Ilyas 3-25).
Semi-finals: Northern vs Balochistan/Southern Punjab/Central Punjab (3:00pm); Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (7:30pm).