IT is that time of the year again when cricket begins to dominate discourses during office lunch breaks, family gatherings, and at chai dhabbas.

With the third edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) commencing today, cricket which is perhaps the only factor that unites the entire country, will once again be taking the nation by storm.

The tournament kicks off with the defending champions Peshawar Zalmi taking on the new-entrants Multan Sultans at Dubai. Both sides have had a warm-up contest each with Zalmi taking on the finalists of both the editions Quetta Gladiators and Sultans playing the champions of the inaugural PSL Islamabad United.

Both had to face defeat as Gladiators edged out by eight runs against Zalmi and United strolled away with a seven-wicket victory in their matchup against Sultans.

There were, however, some takeaways for Peshawar Zalmi as Kamran Akmal, Sameen Gul, and Hammad Azam stood out with an unbeaten fifty, four for 24 in 3.2 overs, and two for seven in 3 overs.

Zalmi are a well-rounded unit with one of the most successful T20 captains Darren Sammy leading the side and a perfect blend of youngsters and seniors in both departments. They may not have Shahid Afridi in the line-up this year, but the inclusion of the West Indies all-rounder Dwayne Bravo adds to the firepower.

On the other hand are Sultans who failed to produce any notable performances. Their captain Shoaib Malik and Ahmed Shehzad top-scored with 34 off 38 and 33 off 28 in their side’s 155 for 8. The total was surmounted with ease in 19.2 overs, thanks to Misbah-ul-Haq’s unbeaten 30-ball 42.

The new PSL franchise, Sultans are expected to take some time before they come together as a unit. Their presence, however, in the PSL is a testimony of the fact that the T20 league has grown in stature. The Multan-based franchise was sold for $5.2m per year - exactly the double of what had to be paid for the previous most-expensive side: Karachi Kings.

This edition puts two of the poorest performers - Lahore Qalandars and Karachi Kings - under spotlight as both of the franchises have made drastic changes in their setups in their bids to put up decent shows.

Qalandars, who have won only 5 of their 16 matches in the first two editions, continued with their tradition of bagging T20 superstars as they signed Australian big-hitting batsman Chris Lynn after picking up Chris Gayle in the first and Brendon McCullum, their current captain, in the second edition.

They also shook up their coaching panel by replacing Paddy Upton with Aqib Javed as the head coach and signing Shoaib Akhtar and Inzamam-ul-Haq as bowling and batting consultants.

Karachi Kings, who have been slightly better than their arch-rivals Lahore Qalandars with seven wins in 19 matches, had the biggest T20 superstar in the country Afridi in their camp way before the PSL draft. They will be under a new captain as bowling all-rounder Imad Wasim will be at the helm of affairs.

The arch-rivals open their PSL III campaign on the second day of the tournament as Kings take on Gladiators and Qalandars play Sultans.

On the other end of the success-spectrum lie Sarfraz Ahmed-led Gladiators. Touted as the underdogs in the first season, they surprised everyone by winnings six of their eight group-stage contests and making it to the final. They, however, were blown away by Islamabad United in the final despite being favourites to win the inaugural PSL.

In the following season, their key overseas cricketers refused to travel to Lahore for the final against Peshawar Zalmi at the Qaddafi Stadium leaving them high and dry. The result was another defeat in the final.

However, this time, Sarfraz, whose side has a win percentage of 60, will look to lift the prestigious silverware in his home city.

Misbah-ul-Haq-led United have a reputation to salvage. Their title defense was tarnished by spot-fixing controversy that saw them in the news throughout last year. Their openers Sharjeel Khan and Khalid Latif were tried by an anti-corruption tribunal the two were eventually banned for five years – two and a half suspended for the former.

However, United possess all the right ingredients to overshadow ghosts of the last edition by putting up a quality show with the bat and ball. The franchise is already being credited for producing quality youngsters in Shadab Khan and Rumman Raees, now vice-captain of the franchise, and will look to turn that into a tradition.

The PSL organisers plan to host the last two playoffs and the final in Lahore and Karachi respectively this year. ICC security consultant Reg Dickason was in Karachi this month to inspect a security rehearsal and by his own admission he was “very, very satisfied” by what he saw.

The Pakistan-Sri Lanka Test in 2009 remains to be the last international contest that this ground hosted. This could open up gates for the return of the international cricket in the metropolis, especially how the success of the PSL final in Lahore last year brought four T20Is to the Qaddafi Stadium. Franchises are confident that all of their players will travel to Pakistan if they make it to the last three matches.

If everything goes according to plan, this PSL will do more wonders for Pakistan cricket than the previous one.

Published in Dawn, February 21st, 2018

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