KARACHI: With three National T20 Cup berths already decided, race for the remaining spot still remains wide open in Rawalpindi after likely contenders Balochistan suffered an inexplicable debacle against reigning champions Northern on Thursday.
Balochistan just required a victory in their penultimate fixture at the Pindi Cricket Stadium to qualify — regardless of results in the remaining three preliminary-round matches — but the last year’s finalists instead went down by 39 runs, while chasing exactly 200.
The outcome of match No.27 has, quite unexpectedly, provided a lifeline to the Babar Azam-led Central Punjab side, which has already completed their 10-game league schedule with a thrilling three-run win against Khyber Pakhtunkhwa late on Wednesday night.
Balochistan came into the match marginally ahead of Central Punjab on net run-rate in fourth place. But these sides swapped positions when Northern cruised to their seventh success while also confirming they’ll finish No. 1 in the final league standings and take on either Central Punjab or Balochistan in Saturday’s first semi-final.
The other last-four clash will be between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, also on Saturday. Sindh were playing their last league-stage encounter against the already-eliminated Southern Punjab when this report was being filed on Thursday.
The scenario which has now emerged is that Balochistan have no choice but to beat Southern Punjab in the last of preliminary-round fixtures on Friday night to go through into the knockout round because they will have two more points than Central Punjab.
Northern’s latest triumph was set up by Haider Ali as the young Pakistan batsman warmed up for the upcoming home series against Zimbabwe with a robust knock of 86. The right-hander negotiated exactly 50 deliveries and struck eight fours and five sixes.
Ali Imran also made good impact with a breezy 41 from 22 balls (four fours and three sixes) as he partnered man-of-the-match Haider in the opening partnership of 92 in 52 balls, which laid a perfect platform of Northern’s commanding tally of 199-6.
Not for the first time in this competition, Shadab Khan yet again exhibited his growing reputation as a genuine all-round material. After Sohail Akhtar and Asif Ali perished in successive overs with single-digit scores, the Pakistan spinner contributed an unbeaten 42 off 27 balls with the aid of four strikes to the fence.
Balochistan, in reply, were not up for the challenge once Imam-ul-Haq was run out by Mohammad Amir for a 21-ball 35 (four boundaries) after he had put on 69 with fellow left-hander Awais Zia (34 off 27, two sixes and two fours).
Northern had the game firmly sewn up when Shadab dismissed Awais and Bismillah Khan on successive deliveries to leave Balochistan struggling at 75-3 in the ninth over. Skipper Haris Sohail hit five fours in scoring a 19-ball 28 but it was never enough to save his team.
Meanwhile, Central Punjab kept their slim hopes alive by curtailing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to 171-6 despite Pakistan wicket-keeper/batsman Mohammad Rizwan playing an outstanding captain’s innings. The diminutive right-hander was left stranded on a career-best 99 after coming at No.4 instead of his newfound spot at the top.
Rizwan’s undefeated 68-ball innings was embedded with seven fours and six sixes but no one else contributed much barring Iftikhar Ahmed, who hit up 21. Left-arm seamer Waqas Maqsood claimed three wickets for 43 runs while former international Ehsan Adil took 2-32.
Earlier, Mohammad Akhlaq was Central Punjab’s hero with the bat with a feisty 29-ball contribution of 50 (four fours and three sixes) in a performance that fetched him the man-of-the-match prize.
Abdullah Shafiq also played a big part in helping Central Punjab post 174-4. He scored a 48-ball 63 (five fours and two sixes) while sharing vital partnerships of 80 in 63 deliveries with Babar (39 off 33, three fours and one six) and a blistering 35-ball 70 for the third wicket with Akhlaq.
Scores in brief:
Played on Thursday:
Northern beat Balochistan by 39 runs.
NORTHERN 199-6 in 20 overs (Haider Ali 86, Shadab Khan 42 not out, Ali Imran 41; Amad Butt 2-29); BALOCHISTAN 160-8 in 20 overs (Imam-ul-Haq 35, Awais Zia 34, Haris Sohail 28; Shadab Khan 2-13, Mohammad Ismail 2-32).
Played on Wednesday night:
Central Punjab beat Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by three runs.
CENTRAL PUNJAB 174-4 in 20 overs (Abdullah Shafiq 63, Mohammad Akhlaq 50 not out, Babar Azam 39; Usman Khan Shinwari 2-20, Imran Khan 2-24); KHYBER PAKHTUNKHWA 171-6 in 20 overs (Mohammad Rizwan 99 not out, Iftikhar Ahmed 21; Waqas Maqsood 3-43, Ehsan Adil 2-32)
Friday’s fixtures: Northern vs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (3:00pm); Balochistan vs Southern Punjab (7:30pm).