Islamabad United have seen it all. From becoming the champions of the inaugural Pakistan Super League (PSL) to the realisation they have rouge elements within their ranks in the second edition, United have been on both the ends of the emotional spectrum.
In the wake of the infamous spot-fixing scandal that saw Mohammad Irfan, Sharjeel Khan, and Khalid Latif being banned from the game, United were frequently in the news, albeit for unwanted reasons.
The controversy affected the franchise’s title defence as their win percentage fell by almost 20% last season from the first season’s 64.
Fun fact: Last season, United lost both of their group matches to the Lahore Qalandars — a side that finished last and won just thrice in eight attempts. Their win combined percentage against the Karachi Kings and the Qalandars — two of the poorest performing sides — is just 50. However, their combined win percentage against two-time finalists Quetta Gladiators and reigning champions Peshawar Zalmi is 60.
All the bad press, however, was balanced out by the extraordinary performances by United players Shadab Khan and Rumman Raees for Pakistan, especially during the national team's glorious Champions Trophy triumph in June last year.
This indicates that the capital city side are slightly prone to taking their foot off the gas against easy opposition but could also elevate their game when the going gets tough.
United — one of the only two franchises to have retained the same captain (Misbah-ul-Haq) since the start of the PSL (the other being the Sarfraz Ahmed-led Quetta Gladiators) — appointed left-arm medium-pacer Raees as their vice-captain for this season.
Having lost their director of cricket, Wasim Akram, to the Multan Sultans, United swiftly moved to replace one W with another, bringing in his former strike partner Waqar Younis for the role.
Meanwhile, Spin maestro Saeed Ajmal, who played two seasons for United before retiring from all forms of cricket in November last year, has been appointed as the spin bowling coach.
Australia's Dean Jones reprises the head coaching position.
Player availability update
United made several tweaks to their line-up during the player replacement draft.
They signed England all-rounder Samit Patel as a replacement for Sri Lanka's Asela Gunaratne, who was supposed to cover for JP Duminy.
West Indian wicketkeeper Chadwick Walton will provide cover for Sam Billings, who has scored 167 runs in nine innings for United at a strike rate of 130.
Lanky English pacer Steven Finn, who was a part of the United squad last year but did not get to play, will be available for the whole season this time around. He was roped in as replacement for compatriot David Willey.
This season will also see Andre Russell return to action after serving a year-long ban for violating the whereabouts clause of the World Anti-Doping Agency code.
The West Indian was instrumental with the ball during United’s successful PSL campaign two years ago, picking up 16 wickets at an average of just 17, in 10 matches.
United had to rebuild their entire top-order after they lost Sharjeel and Khalid to five-year bans, and most would agree that the team managers did a brilliant job.
They have struck the right combination — a good mixture of experienced international players with young domestic talent — in every facet of the game.
Their opening options include Luke Ronchi and Sahibzada Farhan, both of whom have been in top form in limited-overs cricket, with Alex Hales available on the bench as a supplementary player.
Ronchi, the former New Zealand wicketkeeper-batsman, has averaged 31.51, almost eight runs more than his career average, in T20s in 2017.
Charsadda-born Farhan has continued to grow as a batsman since he was picked up by United in the player draft. The 21-year-old piled up 454 runs at an average of 57 for Peshawar in a recent domestic one-day tournament. Four of the scores in his eight innings were 50-plus, one of them in triple digits.
Their middle order has the raw talent of Hussain Talat, Amad Butt and Iftikhar Ahmed, while veterans Misbah-ul-Haq and JP Duminy will be expected to play the anchoring role.
Raees, Amad Butt, and Fahim Ashraf have the experienced Mohammad Sami as a senior in the pace department. Shadab Khan and Zafar Gohar have the Calypsos' Samuel Badree as a guiding light.
It's pretty clear the franchises have learned a great deal from the previous two editions. Each roster looks very carefully built and interspersed with world class talent, which has made it difficult for general observers and even experts to hunt for flaws.
On paper, United's squad looks pretty strong. With no major weak areas on their roster, one has to say that their managers did a stellar job during the draft and recruitment process.
But once the season starts, United will have a reputation to salvage that was sullied by the spot-fixing scandal last year. They will also have to give their 43-year-old captain a memorable parting gift – that is if he decides to hang his gloves.
Player to watch: Faheem Ashraf
Faheem Ashraf made headlines when he scored a swashbuckling 30-ball 64 in a Champions Trophy warm-up match and took Pakistan over the line in their pursuit of Bangladesh’s 342.
However, he, later admitted that he considers himself a bowling all-rounder. He proved himself right two weeks later during his international debut against Sri Lanka. In what was essentially a Champions Trophy quarter-final, Ashraf made a decent impression with the ball, returning two for 37 in 6.2 overs.
This will be the 24-year-old’s first PSL and so he will likely be under the scanner. Ashraf may not have a five-wicket haul or a 50 to his name in the shorter format but don't be surprised if that changes within a month.