— File

PSL recap: The crests and troughs of Pakistan's beloved T20 league

Ahead of PSL 2018, Dawn.com takes a look back at the tournament's first two editions.
Published February 13, 2018

It hasn't taken long for the Pakistan Super League (PSL) to become a staple in Pakistani cricket fans' calendar. The turn of each year now serves as a reminder that the annual edition of Pakistan's biggest sporting spectacle is just around the corner.

Less than three years into its inception, the PCB product, still nascent compared to its rivals, has taken shape. Fanbases have grown, new franchises are being added, talent is being cultivated and, more importantly, money is being made.

Even the side quest of bringing international cricket back to Pakistan has seen a decent amount of progress, evident by last year's final and the subsequent visits of World XI and Sri Lanka.

All this goes to prove that the PSL is now a moderately established brand and has at least the basic mechanism firmly in place. It may not be running as clockwork just yet, but it's getting there.

Like with most things Pakistan, however, the voyage of its flagship cricket league wasn't all smooth sailing. It's success hasn't been without setbacks and its progress not without potholes.

To jog our readers' memories, Dawn.com has recapped the first two PSL tournaments:

The genesis

PCB, many seem to believe, was the last major cricketing board to venture into the T20 league sphere. But easily ignored is the fact that the PSL is only a shinier, more developed and glamorous version of the National T20 Cup, which the PCB had started way back in 2004. Ergo, contrary to popular belief, Pakistan had a T20 league several years before Indian Premier League came along and changed the landscape of the cricketing calendar.

Sialkot Stallions pose for a group photo after winning the Super 8 T20 Cup 2015. — File
Sialkot Stallions pose for a group photo after winning the Super 8 T20 Cup 2015. — File

The National T20 Cup, which effectively was the precursor to the PSL, ran for almost a decade before PCB pulled the plug on it. But a stickler for technicalities could argue that the National T20 Cup and the PSL were still completely separate entities and that the latter had no real connection with the former. In that case, the idea of PSL is believed to have been first conceived somewhere during ex-PCB chairmen Dr Nasim Ashraf and Zaka Ashraf's eras.

As badly as they wanted to have a cash-cow of their own to rival the IPL, the two Ashrafs, however, could not manage to set the wheels in motion. It was only after Najam Sethi assumed the office that the idea looked like turning into a reality.

Two cancellations, one changing of venues from Qatar to UAE and a lot of scepticism later, Sethi and co got the ball rolling. The first five franchises were sold for a combined $93 million, whereas a prominent banking giant was roped in as title sponsor. Players from 11 countries were picked in the first-ever PSL Draft.

Meanwhile, Ali Zafar, the unofficial voice of the PSL, cooked up a killer anthem interspersed with a trumpet riff that has since become the default sound effect for all things PSL.

All systems were go. Finally.

The opening stanza

Reggae singer Sean Paul set the tone in the opening ceremony as PSL 1 got off to a flying start. Despite it not being played in Pakistan, the PSL saw overwhelming support from Pakistani TV viewers and attracted more eyeballs than even the ICC World Cup had in the country the previous year.

Misbah-ul-Haq in action during the first PSL. — File
Misbah-ul-Haq in action during the first PSL. — File

Much was expected of the Karachi Kings and the Lahore Qalandars, owing to them representing the two biggest Pakistani cities; but surprisingly, both fared horribly. The Kings finished second-last, but only because the last place was already occupied by their fellow struggling giants: the Qalandars.

Peshawar Zalmi and Quetta Gladiators, the least expensive franchises in the competition, dominated the league stage, each finishing with 12 points.

While the two giants became the butt of all jokes and the two minnows earned all the plaudits, the fifth franchise, Islamabad United, stayed clear of all the hullabaloo, doing just enough to earn qualify for the play-offs.

Come play-offs, however, the capital city side exploded, annihilating Karachi and Peshawar before doing the same to Quetta in the final.

History had been made. Islamabad United were the champions!

The horror show

The debut PSL season exceeded all expectations. For 20 days, the people of Pakistan ate, breathed and slept PSL. All said and done, the PCB, Sethi claimed, even managed to rake in a profit of $2.6 million. Encouraged by that success, the stakes were raised even higher for the follow-up season, with the tournament final scheduled in Lahore.

Ali Zafar conjured up an even better anthem this time around in the form of Ab Khel Jamay Ga (Now the stage is set), while Shaggy headlined the list of stars who performed at the opening ceremony. What could go wrong?

Sharjeel and Latif were at the centre of the biggest controversy PSL has yet faced. — File
Sharjeel and Latif were at the centre of the biggest controversy PSL has yet faced. — File

Tragedy hit the 2017 PSL on February 10 — the day after it had begun. Spot-fixing, suspensions, scapegoating ... the drill is not unknown to fans of cricket in this country. To some, it was the players' fault, for others, the PCB was to be blamed. Knowing Pakistan cricket, this was simply inevitable. A catastrophe was overdue, a catastrophe was served.

Sethi and co do deserve points for not letting that nightmare derail the tournament.

Back to the game

The group stage matches were uncharacteristically low-scoring for a T20 league, although it also meant that several games went down to the wire, which only added to the league's entertainment.

On the points table, some changes had taken place, but they weren't resounding enough to cause a major ripple. The Qalandars were slightly better but still not better enough to vacate the bottom spot, whereas Zalmi and Gladiators, the two giant-slaying minnows, weren't as dominant but still had enough to occupy the top two spots — just like they had during group stages the previous year.

The Gladiators edged out Zalmi by one run in the first qualifier before defending champions Islamabad, weakened by the loss of their spot-fixers, bowed out with a defeat to the Kings.

Zalmi then knocked out the Kings to reach the final in Lahore.

Spectators at the PSL final at Gaddafi Cricket Stadium in Lahore. — AFP
Spectators at the PSL final at Gaddafi Cricket Stadium in Lahore. — AFP

But a terrorism attack on February 13 meant that staging the final in Lahore was a challenge in itself. Sethi, however, persevered and made the final in Lahore happen.

The Gladiators were handicapped by the absence of several of their star players, who had refused to make the trip. Their absence showed in the final, as Zalmi exploited their opponents' weakness and coasted to an easy win.

There were new champions in town!

The innings ahead

The task now for Zalmi is to not let that success get to their heads in season 3. That Islamabad United had looked sluggish in their title defence even before the spot-fixing fiasco left a gaping hole in their batting is something Zalmi should take note of. Glory can turn a franchise into a dynasty but it can also trigger a tailspin.

Sammy and Samuels lift the PSL 2017 trophy. — File
Sammy and Samuels lift the PSL 2017 trophy. — File

Retaining their crown could be even more difficult for Zalmi as they now have a sixth rival in the form of Multan Sultans. Meanwhile, perennial bottom-dwellers Lahore and others have made off-season moves that have boosted their ranks.

Pakistan cricket has a long history of oscillating between crests and troughs. The spot-fixing scandal of 2017 certainly felt like a trough. Here's hoping that come PSL 2018 time we're nearing the peaks.