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Star-studded HBL aim for title

With a host of international stars expected to light up the field at the National Stadium, Habib Bank Limited (HBL) will take on Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) in the final of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Pakistan's premier first-class tournament.

While this will be HBL's fifth final appearance in the 50 years that the tournament has been played, they have only won it once, and that too 30 years ago. The march to the final, having lost only one match in the process, was made possible on the back of strong all-round performances.

Featuring only one batsman in the top 50 this season - Hasan Raza with 735 runs in 10 matches - HBL were boosted by the inclusion of Younis Khan and Shahid Afridi in the 15-man squad for the final. While Afridi has played two matches for HBL this season - scoring a quickfire 70 and 33 - Younis was forced to miss the entire domestic season due to international commitments. Taufeeq Umar (284 runs at 71) and Imran Farhat (171 runs at 43) did start the season well for HBL, but were later banned from playing domestic due to their involvement in the Indian Cricket League.

In the field, HBL have been brilliant; Mohammad Aslam and Fahad Masood have taken 78 wickets between them and have been key ingredients in HBL's route to the final. The inclusion of Danish Kaneria and Abdur Rehman - who took eight wickets on Test debut against South Africa at this ground last year - might signal the omission of Dilawar Khan, the Peshawar-born legspinner who has 28 wickets in five matches. While Rehman has only bagged a solitary wicket in the only domestic match he played, Kaneria already boasts a tally of 17 wickets from three.

SNGPL have already achieved the credible feat of reaching the final in their debut first-class season. Their star has been the 17-year-old Umar Akmal, younger brother of Pakistan wicketkeeper Kamran, who has scored 849 runs in eight matches at an astonishing average of 94 with a strike-rate of over 90. His unbeaten 248 against Karachi Blues remains the second highest score of the tournament and was nearing his second double before the last league match was called off after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Mohammad Hafeez (639), Khurram Shehzad (594) and Yasir Arafat (524) have been notable performers with the bat and SNGPL will welcome the return of Misbah-ul-Haq, Pakistan's backbone in the last six months.

Samiullah Khan Niazi, on the fringes of an international debut during the last few years, has been devastating with the ball - 43 wickets at an average below 19 in nine matches. While SNGPL's bowling line-up will not scare tooo many, the medium-fast duo of Imran Ali and Asad Ali will be hoping to add to their joint tally of 64 wickets.

Keep an eye on
Akmal, if he plays. His participation is in doubt due to his call-up to the Under-19 squad but his inclusion will only cause problems to HBL purely from his penchant for scoring quick runs. Others on offer are Afridi - Karachi is one of his favourite grounds - and Younis after his dazzling century in the first Test against South Africa on this ground.

Pitching it right
The National Stadium pitch is a gift to all. While it offers assistance to fast bowlers on the first morning, it gradually settles down to aid batsmen over the next few days before the crumble makes it interesting on the last two days. With plenty of boundaries expected, the ball will roughen up quick and reverse-swing post-tea will form part of proceedings on a daily basis. Mid-20s temperatures will ensure fast bowlers can bowl effective, long spells, especially with spin expected to tie up one end.

Teams (from)
HBL - Rafatullah Mohmand, Khaqan Arsal, Younis Khan, Hasan Raza, Shahid Afridi, Aftab Khan, Humayun Farhat (wk), Kamran Hussain, Abdul Rehman, Danish Kaneria, Fahad Masood, Sajid Shah, Aslam Qureshi, Farhan Iqbal, Dilawar Hussain

SNGPL - Misbah-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez, Saleem Mughal, Azhar Shafiq, Yasir Arafat, Hafiz Majid, Ali Niazi, Umar Akmal, Imran Khalid, Adnan Rasool, Adnan Akmal, Farhan Asghar, Arsalan Mir, Tauqeer Hussain, Samiullah Khan Niazi, Asad Ali, Imran Ali, Asim Butt, Faisal Rasheed, Adil Raza

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