National T20 Cup 2021: Grassroots Cricket Team of the Tournament

After the culmination of the exciting tournament, we outline our favorite XI and the logic behind the selections.

While the news that broke on Friday 17th September regarding New Zealand’s tour of Pakistan was hugely disappointing, the one silver lining was that this year’s National T20 Cup would, for the first half at least, feature all of Pakistan’s premier white-ball players. A tournament that would have not otherwise gained much attention effectively became the highlight of the late September – early October period. With more eyes on this tournament, naturally, the players taking part would have had even more motivation to perform to the best of their abilities, and here is the Grassroots Cricket team of the tournament! Do you agree with our picks? (Criteria: minimum seven matches played)

1.    Sharjeel Khan

In a Sindh batting line-up full of anchors, Sharjeel Khan was the key batsman, and he finished as the tournament’s 3rd highest run-scorer. The left-hander had struggled since his comeback; last season, he had poor returns in the National T20 Cup and the Pakistan Cup. Even in the most recent edition of the PSL, despite finishing as the 5th highest run-scorer, he had more than his fair share of luck, with fielders shelling simple chances on multiple occasions while he scored slowly in Powerplays.

In this tournament, however, Sharjeel Khan was looking like the same devastating batsman he was turning into before he got caught up in the ugly side of the sport. The one that, since he was reintroduced into the Pakistan ODI side in 2016, averaged more than 44 at a strike rate of 130+. One major difference in the opener’s game was the way he built his innings. In his first ten balls, his strike rate was a staggering 163, while he struck at 151 in the Powerplay overall – well beyond the 115-125 we’ve come to expect since his comeback. He enjoyed playing the leg-side flicks off the pacers that brought him so many runs during the peak of his career!

One thing he would be hoping to improve going forward is making sure he can capitalize on getting a start – on six occasions this tournament, he was dismissed between 20 and 45.

2.    Mohammad Akhlaq (wk)

Forming a right-left hand opening combination, Muhammad Akhlaq is the wicket-keeper in our team of the tournament! Akhlaq had the most runs and the best strike rate amongst all wicket-keepers in the competition, giving him the edge over Sarfaraz Ahmed, whose good form bagged him a last-minute call-up to the national team!

He started the tournament with a fighting 62 against Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, ultimately coming in a losing cause due to a lack of support from his teammates. His 61 against Northern also featured some great shots. In total, Akhlaq hit 13 sixes in the tournament – only Iftikhar Ahmed, Haider Ali, Sharjeel Khan, and Mohammad Nawaz, all who feature in this team, hit more than him! Akhlaq’s Powerplay strike rate was also an impressive 145.

3.    Sahibzada Farhan

Sahibzada Farhan’s best format has always been List A cricket, where he averages a fraction over 50 with an impressive strike rate of 90.02. However, in this tournament, he had no struggles with the shorter format, finishing as the highest run-scorer. Before the tournament started, Khyber’s danger-man would have no doubt been Mohammad Rizwan, but as it progressed, Farhan showed they were more than just a one-man batting line-up!

He played key knocks in victories over Southern Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan in the group stage, as well as the semi-final victory over Northern. A good tournament overall for the right-hander – part of the winning team, leading run-scorer, and surely a gig in the next PSL on the back of his performances!

4.    Haider Ali

In June, he was dropped from the Peshawar Zalmi XI in the UAE leg of the PSL and then omitted from the tour of England after breaching the bio-secure bubble. Not too soon after, he lost his PCB contract, and in the Caribbean Premier League, was eventually dropped from the Jamaica Tallawahs playing XI after a string of low scores. 2021 was not going well for Haider Ali, but in the National T20 Cup, the youngster came roaring back into form, playing as a #3 batsman!

He started the tournament the same way he did last year, with a Man of the Match performance, as his 58* saw Northern comfortably beat Balochistan. A series of good knocks followed, but his highlight of the tournament was undoubtedly his magnificent 91* off 53 balls as Northern successfully chased down 201 against Central Punjab. While some of Pakistan’s World Cup squad changes were met with negative reactions, the inclusion of Haider Ali pleased the majority of Pakistan fans.

5.    Mohammad Nawaz

The 27-year-old has always been considered a bowling all-rounder, but in this tournament, it was his powerful hitting that stood out. Mind you, he wasn’t bad with the ball either, taking 8 wickets in 6 innings, although he was fairly expensive. He scored 2 half-centuries in 5 innings, and they both came when his team needed them the most. Northern were stuttering in their pursuit of 176 against Southern Punjab before he blasted an unbeaten 56 in just 35 balls.

Then, against the defending champions, Northern had got off to a terrible start before his partnership with Shadab Khan helped Northern post a total they would go on to defend. Nawaz was run out for 51 off 34 and hit 15 sixes in his 5 innings – an average of 3 sixes per innings, comfortably better than anyone else in the tournament! Could he play a role with the bat in the T20 World Cup?

6.    Iftikhar Ahmed ©

Some players struggle with the added burden of captaincy. Take Sohaib Maqsood, for example, who stepped down mid-way through the tournament to focus on his batting. Iftikhar Ahmed isn’t one of those players. After Mohammad Rizwan left, the all-rounder took over at the helm, and there was no looking back from that point onwards! His tremendous form towards the end of the tournament saw him jump into second place in the leading run-scorers, behind only his teammate Sahibzada Farhan.

In the five games he played as captain, he scored 232 runs in just 117 balls, without being dismissed once, while he was extremely tidy with the ball, both stopping the flow of runs and taking key wickets. Strike rate of 202 vs. pace and 216 at the death – Incredible Iftikhar was at his best. As expected, he was named Player of the Tournament, and while it seems too late for him to be part of the T20 World Cup squad now, he could be back in a Pakistan shirt sooner rather than later!

7.    Asif Ali

While he has struggled to replicate his performances in T20 and franchise cricket in the international arena, there is little doubt that he is one of the most powerful finishers in the Pakistan circuit. He scored 124 runs in the six innings he batted in, with the highest strike rate in the tournament of 174.64!

His most meaningful innings came in the high-scoring thriller against Central Punjab, where his quick-fire cameo of 28 in just 14 balls helped apply the finishing touches for Northern. At the death, he hit 56 runs at an SR of 224, the highest in the tournament.

8.    Rumman Raees

There were fears that his career may end prematurely after his horrific luck with injuries, ruling him out for a prolonged period of time. However, the Karachi-born pacer showed he is still good enough for this level – he took the most wickets for Sindh in the tournament and was super economical, while he also showed that he had been working on his batting during his hiatus with some big hits at the end of innings.

His hat-trick was one of the more memorable moments in the tournament, and he also played a part with the bat in the D/L victory over Northern. He hit two sixes at the death in a game they won by just three runs. Rumman finished with a staggering economy rate of just 6.8 at the death – easily the best in the tournament.

9.    Wahab Riaz

When he’s good, he’s really good, but when he’s bad, he’s really bad. That is perhaps the simplest way to describe Wahab Riaz. But in the National T20 Cup, he was consistently the former. While his wicket-taking ability has never been a major issue, he has, at times, struggled with his control; infamously, he has the 3rd worst bowling figures in the history of ODI cricket.

But this tournament, as well as being the fifth-highest wicket-taker, he had a superb economy rate of 6.54. It wasn’t just his bowling where he impressed – he captained well after Babar Azam left and won a couple of matches with his superb death-batting, both against Balochistan! With the ball, he has been impressive early on this year, but thanks to Central Punjab’s rich bowling options, he bowled mostly in the middle overs. Here, he was at his best, taking 8 wickets @ 17 with an economy rate of under 6.

10.   Zahid Mahmood

The leg-spinner gets the nod over Asif Afridi for team balance, with Mohammad Nawaz already there to provide the role of a left-arm spinner. Zahid Mahmood was one of the star performers last season across all formats, which culminated in an international call-up, and he carried on his form for his new team, Sindh.

He took ten wickets in the tournament, less than only two spinners, Qasim Akram and Asif Afridi. He was the Player of the Match against Balochistan, as his figures of 3/18 derailed the Balochistan batting line-up.

11.   Imran Khan

Who would have thought, this time one year ago, that this man would be one of the leading pacers in domestic T20 cricket? Not known for his pace, a line and length bowler like him is typically suited to red-ball cricket. His decline in the longer format over the last few seasons, as well as the emergence of Mohammad Abbas, suggested he was reaching the end of his career.

But in the last 12 months, he has revitalized himself as a very handy limited-overs bowler and has played a big part in 3 T20 tournament victories! He has 35 wickets at an average of under 20 in these tournaments, alongside an economy rate of 7.6 – very similar numbers to Hasan Ali, who has also been in fine form over the last year.

He finished as the leading wicket-taker of the tournament, with his best performance coming in a group stage match against Southern Punjab. He set the tone with a fantastic new-ball spell that saw him remove Zeeshan Ashraf and Sohaib Maqsood in the same over. He was also whiskers away from a hat-trick in the group stage match against Sindh.

12.   Shahnawaz Dahani

The Larkana Express has gone from strength to strength in the shortest format since his T20 debut earlier this year in the PSL. Once again, he was at the top of his game, being a crucial part of Sindh’s strong performances in the first half of the tournament. He finished with 9 wickets @ 16.8 with an economy rate of less than 7. Sarfaraz Ahmed used him well, with the bulk of his overs coming in the Powerplay and Middle Overs, where he has continually impressed in T20 cricket.