Sports

CRICKET: RETURN TO BATTLE

When the Pakistan Super League (PSL) finally kicked off in 2016, eight years after its idea was floated, the prospects of the event turning into a product of substance were uncertain at best. The sordid spot-fixing episode on the eve of the second edition could have easily derailed the mission of making the league into a world-class venture; but the smooth handling of what could have been a volatile situation, with the culprits involved suitably chastised, calmed the jitters.

The biggest gain came in 2018 when Karachi not only earned the honour of staging the grand final but also a historic three-match Twenty20 International series against the West Indies, just a week after Islamabad United had been crowned PSL champions for the second time in three years.

The massive success of those four fixtures in Karachi, the two play-off matches in Lahore, and the final of the 2017 tournament at the Gaddafi Stadium, has encouraged the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) to organise no less than eight of the 34 games of the 2019 PSL season in Pakistan, with Karachi once again picked to host the final on March 17, in another effort to bring big-time international cricket back to Pakistan.

With more matches to be played on Pakistani soil, and a chance to see several local and international players up close, Pakistan Super League’s fourth season promises more action and excitement than the previous editions

Also, for the first time, the Sheikh Zayed Stadium in Abu Dhabi will be staging four matches of the coming edition while Karachi and Lahore would be hosting two matches each of their respective city sides — Karachi Kings and Lahore Qalandars.

Competition-wise, the PSL has certainly blossomed into a level where a fair number of T20 specialists across the globe are all keen to participate in the league that initially had a title sponsorship of $5million per annum for the first three seasons. This has now ballooned to a staggering $14.3million annually for the next three years from 2019 onwards. PCB hopes to earn $36 million from broadcasting and live-streaming rights from the same period in a deal which is reportedly worth 358 percent more than the previous one.

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Undoubtedly, and with due respect to those international stars who have been competing on and off since the inception of this popular event, the biggest-ever signing thus far is the redoubtable AB de Villiers. Once the retired South African legend, who turns 35 on Feb 17, consented to be part of the PSL Season 4, Lahore Qalandars promptly signed him up at the players’ draft, held at Islamabad last November.

The presence of de Villiers — who is available for the franchise until March 10 — would surely inspire the Qalandars, who dubiously enough ended at the bottom of the pile in each of the three previous editions. If anyone can lift the Qalandars it will have to be de Villiers and, if somehow they fail again this time as well, the fingers will be pointed elsewhere by the ardent supporters of easily the most popular PSL team.

While de Villiers is the main attraction of the coming PSL, there are other notable changes that merit a mention here. Mohammad Hafeez, who knows a great deal about winning the title after being part of the Peshawar Zalmi squad that clinched the 2017 edition, will be captaining the Qalandars.

Islamabad United — who will be led by veteran Pakistan speedster Mohammad Sami this time — have lost the services of Misbah-ul-Haq, the ex-Pakistan skipper who has joined the ranks of Peshawar Zalmi, while the once-flamboyant Shahid Afridi will be seen for a third franchise after having represented Peshawar Zalmi (in 2016 and 2017) and Karachi Kings (2018). He will be appearing for the Multan Sultans after captain Shoaib Malik picked his former team-mate.

Former Australian captain Steve Smith was initially picked by Multan Sultans but a knee injury has forced him out. His replacement is West Indian all-rounder Andre Russell.

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Colin Munro, the New Zealand left-hander, was signed by Karachi Kings the previous year, but he couldn’t play chiefly because of national duties. He will be making his debut this year. Another interesting addition to the PSL is the discarded England batsman Ian Bell who joins Islamabad United after a successful domestic T20 season in 2018 for Birmingham Bears.

Dwayne Bravo may have turned his back on the West Indies for good but the all-rounder, who skippered Trinbago Knight Riders to the Caribbean Premier League crown in 2018, will rejoin the PSL after skipping the last two seasons due to injuries. This time he’ll be seen in action for the Quetta Gladiators, who are bolstered by Sunil Narine and Umar Akmal coming from Lahore Qalandars.

Multan Sultans enter their second season under a brand new management in the Multan Consortium — run by Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf senior leader Jehangir Tareen’s son Ali — after the newest franchise’s previous owner Schon Properties was reported as a defaulter and the PCB was left with no option but to terminate the initial eight-year ownership rights signed with the Dubai-based company.

Strategically, some of the franchises have also had a change of guard in their support staff. Former Pakistan captains Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis will be seen in different roles for Karachi Kings and Islamabad United, while the legendary West Indies batsman Sir Vivian Richards will continue to mentor the two-time PSL runners-up Quetta Gladiators.

There are familiar faces in the coaching ranks of Islamabad United (Dean Jones), Karachi Kings (Mickey Arthur), Quetta Gladiators (Moin Khan), Peshawar Zalmi (Mohammad Akram) and Lahore Qalandars (Aaqib Javed) but Multan Sultans have a new head coach in the ex-South Africa spinner Johan Botha after the former Australian batsman Tom Moody expressed his unavailability due to domestic commitments.

Pakistan are the top-ranked T20 side in the ICC team rankings, but their captain, Sarfraz Ahmed, has yet to lay his hands on the glittering Swarovski trophy. Would he, the only man in the PSL history to lead the same franchise over the four editions, be lucky this time around as he leads Quetta? We’ll find out soon enough.

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Emerging talent
As usual, the most fascinating feature of the PSL is the emerging talent. Hasan Ali became an overnight hero from the 2016 edition; and then came Shadab Khan, the young leggie who has grown in stature as one of the most talented young cricketers on the international stage. Shaheen Shah Afridi has graduated to the senior team after a sensational five-for burst for the Qalandars last year in Dubai; and Hussain Talat is doing his best to command a regular berth in the Pakistan T20 team.

Mohammad Hassaan Khan, Usama Mir, Mohammad Irfan Jr and Ibtisam Sheikh are still searching for the elusive breakthrough to make the Pakistan team, but their dream coming true is probably round the corner.

This year a few young guns will be trying their luck to make the grade. Saif Badar made his PSL debut for Multan Sultans, but the young bloke hardly got a proper opportunity. It’s a shame that the franchises have overlooked not just him but also Khushdil Shah, despite both enjoying decent seasons. Another glaring omission is young opener Zeeshan Malik.

Opener Rizwan Hussain, spinner Umar Khan and 18-year-old paceman Mohammad Hasnain are some of the new faces but their credentials will only be documented if they get the chance to showcase their genuine worth.

On the other hand, there are a couple of inclusions which smack of nepotism in selection matters. How did Jaahid Ali, who hails from a well-to-do family, get a PSL contract for Karachi Kings despite far from being a T20 specialist with a solitary appearance in the format?

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 10th, 2019
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