Quaid-e-Azam Trophy 2021/22: Post-Tournament Review

The 2021/22 edition of Pakistan's premier First Class competition saw Khyber Pakhtunkhwa once again crowned champions.

Another year has gone by, and another edition of Pakistan’s premier First Class competition has come to an end. The 2021/22 edition of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy may not have entirely lived up to expectations after a remarkable 2020/21 tournament. However, it still gave us plenty to dissect in the form of post-tournament content.

Contrasting Fortunes

The first leg of the tournament was held in Punjab, with matches being played at Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore; Iqbal Stadium, Faisalabad; and Multan Cricket Stadium. The tournament got off to a disastrous start, with conditions proving to be far too batting-friendly. Halfway through the tournament, there were murmurs about a potential ball change (from the Kookaburra) to the more bowling-friendly Dukes. However, that didn’t gain a lot of traction. The first leg culminated in 14 draws and just one result.

For the second leg, the tournament moved to Karachi, where the entirety of the previous edition had been held due to COVID-19. Once again, the conditions on offer in Karachi appeared to rescue the season. The alarming trend of the first leg, where openers averaged more than 60 and spinners averaged almost 15 overs per wicket, was reversed. Matches were played at State Bank Stadium, UBL Sports Complex, and NBP Sports Complex in Karachi. Conditions proved to be quite favorable for all-round cricket, and batsmen and bowlers prospered alike. The final was played at National Stadium, Karachi, as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa clinched yet another domestic title.

Team Reviews

Balochistan

It’s often been a rough ride for Balochistan since the new system was introduced, and the same was the case here. They were the only side to finish the tournament without a win and predictably ended bottom of the points table.

In the first half of the tournament, their batsmen kept them in the game and ensured that they didn’t end up on the losing side. Balochistan’s top 6 batters averaged almost 57 in the Punjab leg, the best of any team. However, they were rarely able to push for victories, with their bowlers averaging 54 collectively in the first half.

It all fell apart for them in the second leg, however. Despite the addition of Shan Masood, possibly the standout batsman during the Karachi leg, Balochistan’s batters were abysmal in Karachi. Their top 6 batters averaged just 27.5 in Karachi, with Masood scoring more than 25% of his team’s runs. The bowlers fared better than they did in Punjab, but they still averaged almost 40 – the second-worst. As a result, Balochistan lost 4 out of 5 games in Karachi, with two being innings losses.

There were additional problems for Balochistan as well, with Imran Butt stepping down as captain midway through the tournament to focus on his batting; Bismillah Khan took over. When the first-choice wicket-keeper suffered an injury ahead of the Round 10 match, Balochistan went for a makeshift wicket-keeping option in Umar Akmal; he also suffered an injury soon, and the rest of the game saw various bowlers keep wickets, struggling with the task. Perhaps a backup wicket-keeper should have been part of the squad.

Southern Punjab

Southern Punjab were one of the more active teams in the lead-up to the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, making some changes to their roster. They signed Usman Salahuddin, Naseem Shah, Hassan Khan, and Azam Khan ahead of the 2021/22 domestic season. The signing of Naseem, in particular, was meant to give their bowling attack more bite, something that they have often struggled with.

However, SP lost Usman Salahuddin and Naseem Shah early on to the Pakistan Shaheens squad for their (rain-hit) tour of Sri Lanka. Naseem would later also be part of the Pakistan Test squad against Bangladesh, meaning he could only play the last two games. Meanwhile, Usman Salahuddin suffered a devastating blow during the tour of Sri Lanka, with a finger injury ruling him out for the season.

Still, the team coached by Shahid Anwar appeared to be on the right track at the halfway stage. Left-arm spinner Ali Usman, playing his first full season of First Class cricket, put in some exceptional performances in the Punjab leg, where he was the standout bowler by a significant margin. In the Punjab leg, SP won the only match to end in a result, beating eventual finalists Northern; they topped the table after five games.

However, things didn’t go to plan in the Karachi leg. While the SP batters fared reasonably well, particularly the middle order, the bowlers failed to provide many performances of note, with the side losing 4 of their 5 games in the Karachi leg, finishing second-last. Southern Punjab’s bowlers collectively averaged in excess of 40 in the Karachi leg, by far the poorest returns for any team.

Central Punjab

Last season’s joint-winners, Central Punjab, would have been hopeful of faring well this season. They had bolstered their squad with the acquisition of Hussain Talat, and the likes of Abid Ali and Azhar Ali were partially available during the season. CP also had the benefit of triple title-winning coach Abdul Razzaq joining their side. However, all that glitters isn’t gold, and they finished a disappointing fourth in the points table.

As was the case with the rest of the teams, CP’s batting looked solid in the Punjab leg. Most of their batsmen fired, and their top 6 batters collectively averaged 53.5 in the first leg, the second-highest. However, with CP playing 3 of their 5 first-leg matches at Gaddafi Stadium, their bowlers predictably struggled, averaging almost 50 runs per wicket.

As the tournament moved to Karachi, some of the international contingent departed the CP squad, with Rizwan Hussain taking over opening duties. The left-hander ended up being the only CP batsman to impress in the Karachi leg, scoring over 500 runs @ 58. The next highest run-scorer for CP here was Mohammad Saad, with 247 runs @ 31. On the bowling front, Mohammad Ali and Bilawal Iqbal fared well in Karachi, but the others struggled. As a result, CP’s bowler collectively averaged a shade over 30 in Karachi – not quite as poor as Balochistan and SP, but nowhere near the best three sides.

From a leadership point of view, CP seemed a bit double-minded after Azhar Ali’s departure. Initially, the then 22-year-old Ali Zaryab was handed captaincy duties, but after three games, he was replaced by veteran Mohammad Saad. Additionally, 2019 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy Player of the Tournament Zafar Gohar played all five matches in Punjab but played just two more games in the more favorable conditions of Karachi. In one of them, he registered match figures of 7/169 and made a crucial 42* in the first innings when CP were under pressure – helping them to one of their only two wins of the tournament.

In the future, Central Punjab certainly have the players – both current and more coming through – to make an impact in domestic cricket. However, perhaps they need to be more judicious with their selection and strategies. In the long run, they may also regret letting go of a bowler of the caliber of Naseem Shah.

Sindh

Top of the table after eight matches, but somehow missing out on the final once again. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Sindh have continued to boss tournaments at the lower age groups, but yet again, their First Class team was found wanting as they missed out on the final by a narrow margin. On the bright side, their performances this season were far better than last season on the whole.

In the Punjab leg, Sindh had the same results as four other sides: five matches played, five draws. Ahsan Ali hit 303*, while Ammad Alam and Khurram Manzoor were among the batsmen to hit 150s. Youngster Saad Khan also hit two hundreds. On the bowling front, Mohammad Asghar did well to pick up 20 wickets here, and Mir Hamza picked up 12 wickets @ 24.6 – super returns for the Punjab leg.

As they switched to Karachi, they immediately recorded a massive innings win over strugglers Balochistan. Abrar Ahmed picked up 11 wickets while Sohail Khan took 7. In the next match, Sindh recorded a stunning win against the odds versus the eventual champions Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. After conceding a 120-run first-innings lead, the Sindh batters fought back before Mir Hamza bowled his side to a win with 6/33.

However, they were up against the juggernaut of Northern next, and yet another first-innings collapse followed. There was no comeback this time, as Sindh were steamrolled by an innings. The next match produced another thriller, with Sohail Khan playing a starring role with both bat and ball as they closely defeated Central Punjab. Basit Ali’s side closed out the tournament with another victory but finished 7 points adrift of KP despite winning and drawing the same number of games. More positive play and fewer first innings collapses would have likely seen them through to the final.

There were several positives for Sindh, with Saad Khan looking likely to be a mainstay of their batting order for years to come. Veterans Khurram Manzoor and Sohail Khan also put in some good performances. However, there are some areas of improvement that they can focus on. With the talent at Sindh’s disposal, especially among the juniors, it would be very surprising if their trophy drought continued for much longer.

Northern

Northern have made a habit of being a watchable team in all formats of domestic cricket. Not always having the biggest names, they have still eked out results, and the same was the case here – although they left it very late. Their season started with Ijaz Ahmed jr. taking over the coaching reigns, with Mohammad Wasim now in charge of selection duties for the national team.

In the Punjab leg of the tournament, Northern were – bizarrely – the poorest batting side, with their top 6 batters recording an average of just 44 runs per dismissal (the lowest in extremely batting-friendly conditions). However, their bowlers generally fared well. Musa Khan bowled a superb spell early on in the tournament, utilizing his pace to good effect and registering a 5-fer against KP, taking the conditions out of the equation. Still, Northern finished the first leg at the bottom of the table after losing to Southern Punjab.

The bad news continued to come for Northern; in the first match of the Karachi leg, they suffered a narrow loss to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, the next round saw Haider Ali and Haris Rauf joining the side, and they never looked back. A Haider Ali double-hundred and Haris Rauf 9-fer resulted in a 9-wicket victory, giving Northern the momentum they desired. The next three matches saw them record massive innings victories, and they ballooned their points tally to finish top despite losing more matches than both KP and Sindh.

In the final, they were up against Khyber Pakhtunkhwa once again. They will look back to the Iftikhar Ahmed hundred and first-innings collapse after a good start as being the critical moments where they lost control of the game after a good start. After that, KP always had the upper hand. Still, Northern once again displayed what they could achieve with some momentum and a positive approach to the game. No team recorded more bonus points than their tally of 68, which ultimately enabled them to finish top of the table.

At the same time, Northern continued to develop players this season, with Mohammad Huraira having a breakthrough tournament. 19-year-old Mubasir Khan played all the matches and won the Player of the Tournament award for his all-round displays. Pacer Kashif Ali also made his First Class debut and played a key role in their trip to the final, while they also handed caps to the likes of 18-year-old Abdul Faseeh, who almost recorded a hundred on FC debut (94).

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Since the start of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy last season, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa juggernaut has won 5 out of 5 major domestic tournaments. With the talent available to KP, especially in bowling, it’s not particularly a surprise. Still, they had to contend with a lot of missing personnel at various points this season, and they navigated it all superbly to emerge as champions once again.

Pre-season preparations saw vaunted coach Abdul Rehman return to the side he’s most familiar with after a stint at Southern Punjab. However, ahead of the tournament, they suffered key blows due to the Shaheens tour of Sri Lanka, which saw the likes of Kamran Ghulam, Irfanullah Shah, and Arshad Iqbal missing a chunk of the tournament. They also had to navigate the losses of Iftikhar Ahmed and Sajid Khan to international duty later on.

KP struggled in the Punjab leg, with their bowlers averaging almost 50. They were the only side in the Punjab leg with a higher bowling average than batting average (frontline batters). However, they avoided losing matches with some standout innings. In the match against Southern Punjab, youngster Nabi Gul hit a sparkling 148 (out of a team total of 297), which proved crucial to his side avoiding defeat. In the last match of the Punjab leg, a fantastic rearguard by Adil Amin helped them to avoid a loss to CP.

KP recalled veteran Ashfaq Ahmed for the Karachi leg, and the senior batter provided some solidity up top, top-scoring for his side with 354 runs @ 35.4. With the ball, as many as five bowlers (Sameen Gul, Sajid Khan, Irfanullah Shah, Arshad Iqbal, and Asif Afridi) picked up more than 15 wickets at sub-26 averages. This bowling strength took KP to the final, despite their batting not being at their best. Yet, their batters made some telling contributions along the way, notably Adil Amin’s stunning 128* in their 4-wicket win vs. Northern and Iftikhar Ahmed in the final.

At the end of the day, it may seem like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa waltzed their way to a title win, but this was a hard-fought victory. They didn’t have it all their way, but squad depth and players stepping up at crucial moments proved pivotal. Of course, their bowling strength cannot be understated – KP played the final with Arshad Iqbal and Irfanullah Shah on the bench, and the two had combined to pick up 36 wickets @ 20.

Final Words

At the halfway stage, things didn’t look good for the 2021/22 edition of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. However, the Karachi leg salvaged the tournament, giving batsmen and bowlers a chance alike and providing results. On the whole, the quality of the tournament was somewhat diluted due to almost 20 of the best players missing the first half of the tournament for the Shaheens tour.

This was perhaps the first time ever that all domestic cricket games had digital live-scoring. In the short term, that gives us the benefit of recording ball-by-ball data digitally thanks to the excellent coverage of the tournament due to CricHQ. However, Pakistan will really begin to bear the fruit of this investment in the long term. Hopefully, the 2022/23 edition of the tournament will see more balanced conditions across the length of the tournament, with the cream of the crop of domestic cricketers available for most of the season.

Statistical Overview