After two weeks of enthralling action, the inaugural season of the Afghanistan Premier League (APL) moves to the all-important knockout phase. Balkh Legends and Nangarhar Leopards go head to head in the first semi-final at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium on Friday at 21:30 IST.
While Balkh finished the group stage at the top of the points table with six victories from eight matches, Nangarhar scraped through to the semi-finals on the back of just three wins. During the previous two matches between these teams, both Legends and Leopards won one game apiece. However, all that won't count for much as the semi-final in itself should present a different challenge altogether.
Prior to his entry into the tournament, many doubted if Chris Gayle still had it in him to pulverise bowling attacks. He has dispelled all those preconceived notions with powerful knocks in his last two matches. Having hit top gear, the stage is now set for the Jamaican to dominate.
Andre Fletcher made an emphatic statement in his APL debut. The Caribbean opener slammed six sixes to shape Nangarhar's clinical triumph against Balkh on Wednesday. The hard-hitting Colin Munro possesses an adequate quality to bounce back from a couple of below-par displays.
The promising Darwish Rasooli is a key batsman for Balkh. Should one of Gayle or Munro perish early, he has the firepower to establish a strong platform for the middle-order. The experienced Ryan ten Doeschate is indispensable to any fantasy team as he can be relied upon to produce a meaningful contribution.
Shafiqullah Shafiq is starting to show signs of clicking with the bat. It will be interesting to see if the Leopards push the gloveman up the order to score quick runs. Although his team is on a roll, Balkh skipper Mohammad Nabi has not had a great season thus far. With the prospect of a do or die clash in the offing, the seasoned campaigner has the capacity to lead from the front.
Gulbadin Naib edges out teammate Aftab Alam in this lineup due to his superior ability to pick up wickets. Presumably, he was rested by the team management during Balkh's last group match. Fellow seamer Mirwais Ashraf can also turn the game on its head with a whirlwind spell.
While Balkh has the better pace attack, Nangarhar's spinners are operating on a different level at the moment. Not many batsmen are picking Zahir Khan. The chinaman exponent's consistency should pay ample dividends in a high-pressure clash. On the other hand, Mujeeb Ur Rahman's tussle with Balkh's explosive top-order could virtually decide the outcome of the match.
Captaincy Preference Order: Chris Gayle, Mujeeb Ur Rahman, Andre Fletcher,
Fantasy XI for Balkh Legends vs Nangarhar Leopards: Chris Gayle (c), Andre Fletcher, Colin Munro, Darwish Rasooli, Ryan ten Doeschate, Shafiqullah Shafiq (wk), Mohammad Nabi, Gulbadin Naib, Mirwais Ashraf, Zahir Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman