The sixth edition of the 2021 Pakistan Cup took place in Karachi, with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa being crowned winners after defeating Central Punjab in the final.
After an almost two-year-long hiatus, a domestic 50-over tournament took place in Pakistan. The former domestic cricket system had multiple 50-over tournaments, often including both departments and regions in the same one, but they were naturally scrapped in the new system. Hence, all that was left was the Pakistan One-Day Cup, and the first edition of the 50-over tournament (under the Cricket Associations system) was scheduled to take place after PSL 5. Of course, COVID disrupted those plans, as it did with almost everything else in 2020. After a long wait, though, we finally had a domestic 50-over tournament.
Now, it must be said that this tournament was almost an afterthought – not because it wasn’t an important event. The first 50-over tournament in two years is bound to have importance. However, it began with the Pakistan and Shaheens squads still in New Zealand and concluded with the South Africa series taking place. Bio-secure bubble requirements meant large squads had to go on tours, leaving less top players for domestic cricket. Additionally, with PSL 6 coming up, the Pakistan Cup understandably had a lower profile. Still, that’s not to say that we didn’t learn a few interesting things…
With COVID ensuring that a normal season wasn’t possible, the board had to make a few changes. Therefore, the decision-makers decided that the entire Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and Pakistan One-Day Cup would be held in Karachi. This raised fears that worn-out pitches and grounds would result in low-quality cricket, especially for the 50-over tournament, since teams had already played a host of four-day games at the stipulated venues. These fears turned out to be unfounded, with all three grounds having pitches with varying natures and producing absorbing cricket.
The Three Grounds
PCB decided to broadcast the matches that took place at State Bank Stadium, also known as State Bank of Pakistan Sports Complex (SBP). Located in Karachi’s Nazimabad area, the stadium had (note the past tense) a reputation of being a low-scoring venue, despite the short-ish boundaries.
The remaining matches were held at the United Bank Limited Sports Complex (UBL) and National Bank of Pakistan Sports Complex (NBP). NBP has often been a spin-friendly ground in recent times, while spinners in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy found a lot of success at UBL. However, the grounds turned out to be very different, posing varying challenges for batting sides.
SBP saw by far the highest scores in the tournament. Its prior reputation of being a low-scoring ground was annihilated, with several scores in excess of 350. Pacers and spinners both struggled, but spinners were worse off (making Asif Afridi’s Man of the Match effort of 5/39 in the final even more impressive). From one point of view, this ensured that the televised games were high-scoring, which the average cricket fan prefers. However, it also allowed batsmen almost complete free reign to score as they wished.
With a low strike-rate and low economy, especially for spinners, NBP was undoubtedly a ground that suited the slow bowlers. The economy rates indicate that the pitches were also likely of a slow and low nature, making run-scoring difficult. On the flip-side, UBL’s numbers indicate that it was potentially the best ground for the tournament. Bowlers had the lowest strike rate here, but the economy rates were high, implying that batsmen got value for their shots despite the high dismissal rate.
Openers Make Hay
When you have a high-scoring limited-overs tournament, the chances are that the openers will top all the batting charts. That was indeed the case with the 2021 Pakistan Cup.
The above table shows the top run-scoring openers in the tournament. Meanwhile, Tayyab Tahir, Khurram Manzoor, and Mukhtar Ahmed finished as the top three run-scorers in the tournament, while Shan Masood slotted in at #6 (Mukhtar also batted at #3 a few times).
It was interesting to note the overall stats of openers in the tournament: average 40.55, strike rate 92.75. The four openers mentioned above all scored at rates below the tournament average for openers. Meanwhile, the likes of Rizwan Hussain, Sharjeel Khan, Haider Ali, and Bismillah Khan went for a more gung-ho approach, with Rizwan Hussain hitting a boundary every 4.53 deliveries. Interestingly, Haider Ali’s non-boundary strike rate was the highest of the selected openers, showing his strike-rotation prowess.
Sahibzada Farhan gets a special shout out for his hundreds in the semi-final and final, a crucial component of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s tournament win.
Middle Order Madness
Performances from batsmen between #3 and #8 showed various interesting performers. The top-scorer was 18-year-old all-rounder Qasim Akram, with 462 runs in 12 matches @ 58 (SR 101). The youngster hit his maiden ton and looked to play the finisher role, finishing not out on no less than four occasions. A classical batsman capable of reasonable boundary-hitting ability alongside good strike rotation and temperament (and who can also bowl off-spin) – that’s a lot to work with.
After impressing earlier in the season with some fine displays in the National T20 Cup, Sohaib Maqsood did it again in this tournament. The right-hander blitzed his way to 57 and 64-ball tons as he hit 455 runs at an SR of 128. Hammad Azam was also among those to impress. The all-rounder led Northern in their last 3 matches and also piled up 443 runs @ 44.3 (SR 121) during the tournament (alongside 13 wickets @ 29.7). He deservedly won the Player of the Tournament award. Two notable ball-strikers were Asif Ali (SR 141, 4.5 balls per boundary) and Anwar Ali (SR 152, 5.5 balls per boundary). Maqsood hit a boundary every 5 deliveries.
Of the middle-order batsmen, a few select ones stood out in terms of their strike rotation, with Hammad Azam, Adil Amin, Hasan Khan, Anwar Ali, and Azam Khan particularly impressive. The latter stages of the tournament would have been even more captivating had Anwar and Azam been available for table-toppers Sindh, who suffered a heavy defeat in the semi-final. Special shout out to Danish Aziz, who played one of the innings of the tournament, hitting an epic 101* in a chase of 276 against eventual champions Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Round 7.
Young Wicket-Keepers To the Fore
Azam Khan won the wicket-keeper of the tournament award with 13 dismissals, while Bismillah, Ikhlaq, Haris, and Rohail had 10, 9, 9, and 6 dismissals, respectively.
From a batting point of view, Pakistan is spoilt for choice – at least in the shorter formats. Azam has had an impressive season with the bat in white-ball cricket and is the oldest of the young Azam-Rohail-Haris trio (22 y/o vs. 19 y/o for the other two).
Rohail often led Northern’s recovery after top-order struggles, and he consistently breached the 50-run mark. Haris, meanwhile, carried his Youth ODI reputation into the tournament and lived up to it with his maiden List A hundred. Azam, meanwhile, was the most impressive in terms of both boundaries (lowest balls per boundary) and strike-rotation (highest non-boundary strike-rate).
The Return of Leg-Spin
Few – if any – wrist-spinners impressed in previous editions of the Pakistan Cup. However, leg-spin was the way to succeed in this tournament from a bowler’s perspective.
This was largely due to Zahid Mahmood and Usman Qadir, who combined to pick up 36 wickets in the tournament at sub-20 averages. Meanwhile, despite slow left-armers having a relatively high average, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Asif Afridi was mighty impressive. He picked up 25 wickets @ 22.7, including a five-fer in the final (the only five-fer by a spinner at SBP in the tournament). Add that to his six-hitting ability, and he makes for an impressive #8 option.
Among the pacers, Ahmed Bashir was the top wicket-taker but conceded runs at a very high rate. Mohammad Umar was impressive with his wicket-taking skills, while Mohammad Hasnain was one of the most economical bowlers of the tournament. Hammad and Anwar returned excellent numbers, considering their contributions with the bat.
The 50-over format may not be a priority for Pakistan at the moment, with a T20 World Cup coming up later this year. However, the 2021 edition of the Pakistan Cup threw up some interesting names and candidates for ODI cricket. New Chief Selector Mohammad Wasim will undoubtedly keep a keen eye on the progress of some of the top performers. It will be interesting to see how the tournament fares next season, hopefully in a post-COVID world and with more top players available!