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CRICKET: THIRD TIME’S THE CHARM

February 25, 2018

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The six PSL team captains pose with the trophy at Dubai Stadium
The six PSL team captains pose with the trophy at Dubai Stadium

By the time this write-up appears, season three of the HBL Pakistan Super League (PSL) will be entering its fourth day of action with the T20 extravaganza having grown in stature since its inception only two years ago. With the induction of Multan Sultans as the sixth and the most expensive franchise that secured the winning bid at a staggering $5.2 million per annum, PSL’s popularity is gaining momentum at a breakneck pace. And if the final does come to Karachi as planned, then it would be a huge step towards ensuring the league returns to Pakistan in its entirety.

Let us not delve much into what happened at the start of Season Two when the tournament was initially thrown into turmoil with the startling revelation of Islamabad United’s Sharjeel Khan and Khalid Latif ‘allegedly’ being involved in shady spot-fixing business. That issue was firmly dealt with by the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) by not only withdrawing the duo from participation but also initiating investigation into the sordid affair, which ultimately cost both players their playing future with bans and fines. Four other players also got hauled up in the mayhem and were subsequently handed down punishments.

Undoubtedly, Season Three offers even bigger challenges as Peshawar Zalmi defend their crown after a monumental victory at a packed Gaddafi Stadium. But the 2017 final glaringly reduced Quetta Gladiators’ aspirations to go one better than their runners-up finish to the inaugural PSL winners Islamabad United when all their first-choice foreign stars — such as Kevin Pietersen, Tymal Mills, Rilee Rossouw, Luke Wright and Nathan McCullum — refused to travel to Lahore for security reasons. This was quite understandable considering that barely three weeks prior to the March 5 title-decider a bomb blast near the Punjab assembly had resulted in 13 deaths and over 80 injuries.

With several fresh inductions and many playing musical chairs, an additional new team and venue for the final, PSL’s Season Three promises much action and excitement

Peshawar Zalmi owner Javed Afridi must be appreciated for successfully in coaxing Darren Sammy and the all other overseas players of his franchise to visit Lahore in what ultimately led to a virtual ‘no-contest’ on the playing field, with Zalmi lifting the title by a handsome margin of 58 runs.

The PCB is obviously keen to avoid such a repetition this time when the last three fixtures — two eliminator playoffs in Lahore and the final in Karachi — are played in Pakistan. A foolproof security blanket and same-day fly-in-fly-out visit to the two cities on the match day have been arranged to ensure that the qualifying teams have their full overseas contingent and are not ditched by them at the last hour.

New talent to watch out for: Left-arm speedster from Khyber Agency Shaheen Shah Afridi (above) and Salman Irshad from Azad Kashmir (below)
New talent to watch out for: Left-arm speedster from Khyber Agency Shaheen Shah Afridi (above) and Salman Irshad from Azad Kashmir (below)

Najam Sethi, the PSL chairman who now of course also heads the PCB, is adamant on staging the future editions in their rightful place — Pakistan. The first samples in this direction came in the shape of a very successful Twenty20 International series last September in Lahore where a star-studded World XI, skippered by Faf du Plessis, faced the Sarfraz Ahmed-led national side, which then also played the last fixture of a three-match T20 rubber against Sri Lanka in late October.

The return of international cricket to the country in phases is the need of the hour and with the surfacing of franchise-based T20 leagues across the globe, Pakistan would be better off hosting their own league in front of home supporters at the earliest opportunity. It is the top-most priority on the PCB decision-making timetable because they are now realising that their adopted ‘home base’ since 2010 in the United Arab Emirates is extremely costly from the organisational point of view of both Pakistan’s bilateral series and the PSL. Also, the emerging of other leagues will lead to difficulties in finding dates not just in Dubai and Sharjah, where 31 of the 34 PSL fixtures are scheduled to be held this time.

Therefore, the next four weeks would keep every cricket enthusiast on tenterhooks whichever team he or she is supporting. The talk of the town will be only PSL. However, there will be scores of youth who will be forced to keep their focus firmly on their studies with the annual final term exams also looming next month.

Apart from the hordes of Pakistan stars and the home-grown newbies, the main attraction for PSL diehards are the overseas signings. International and personal commitments have already either curtailed participation or robbed the franchises of a number of foreign crowd-pullers. For instance Mitchell Johnson, the fiery ex-Australian fast bowler, has pulled out after being bought by Karachi Kings during the November player draft ceremony in Lahore.

The return of international cricket to the country in phases is the need of the hour and with the surfacing of franchise-based T20 leagues across the globe, Pakistan would be better off hosting their own league in front of home supporters at the earliest opportunity.

But the good news is that Chris Lynn, arguably the most explosive batsman of this format, will considerably beef up Lahore Qalandars, the franchise which tragically suffered the humiliation of ending up at the bottom of the pile in each of the first two editions despite boasting of a decent squad. England’s limited-overs captain Eoin Morgan, who played for Peshawar Zalmi, is only available for Karachi Kings just for a brief period towards the backend of the PSL owing to the English team’s One-day International series in New Zealand which concludes on March 10.

The ICC World Cup qualifiers, which run from March 4 until March 25, deprive PSL the services of Evin Lewis (Peshawar Zalmi) and Carlos Brathwaite (Quetta Gladiators) since both will be on duty for the two-time former World Cup champions West Indies. Leg-spin sensation Rashid Khan, the solitary player from Afghanistan in this PSL, will also only be partly in action for Quetta Gladiators because of his country’s participation in the same Zimbabwe event.

If Shadab Khan was the find of the 2017 PSL, then this edition could unearth another potential Pakistan star in the making. Shaheen Shah Afridi, the 17-year-old left-arm speedster from Khyber Agency, was one of the few shining lights during the ICC Under-19 World Cup in New Zealand. His spirited performance made him the only Pakistani to make the global youth competition’s fantasy composite XI.

Shaheen first came into prominence after a truly astounding first-class debut in September while playing for Khan Research Laboratories. He returned a sensational second-innings analysis of 8-39 against Rawalpindi at the Pindi Cricket Stadium and is definitely one for the future in the next decade.

Rohail Nazir’s presence in this PSL throws up an enchanting contrast in the Islamabad United team, which surely would be the swansong for its skipper Misbah-ul-Haq, who will be 44 years old in late May. Rohail, who turned only 16 in October and thereby becomes the youngest player in this edition, is one of five wicket-keepers in the squad, that also features the retired New Zealand stumper Luke Ronchi.

Another unknown face to make the cut this year is Salman Irshad, who becomes the first-ever PSL signing from Azad Kashmir. A native of Rawalakot, Salman was spotted by the eagle-eyed Aaqib Javed, the former Pakistan paceman who is the head coach of Lahore Qalandars. This 22-year-old right-armer has the reputation of regularly clocking 140kph and even touching close to 150kph at times. Fawad Rana, the proud Qalandars’ owner, was heavily impressed by what he saw and promptly had Salman flown to Australia where he trained and played for the New South Wales club outfit Hawkesbury CC.

Cricket being a team sport, all eyes will be following the exploits of debutants Multan Sultans, who were bought by the Dubai-based Schon Properties. They have made big signings to begin with, both in the playing squad as well as team management. Shoaib Malik left the Mickey Arthur-coached Karachi Kings to lead the new PSL entrants, and they have also taken on the Lahore-born South African leggie Imran Tahir.

Moreover, Multan owner Asher Schon has hired Wasim Akram (formerly Islamabad United’s mentor) as the team director, while Islamabad in turn has roped in the ex-Pakistan legend’s new-ball partner Waqar Younis. Both Wasim and Waqar would also do a double act as their respective franchise’s bowling coaches.

Still, the most notable induction in the PSL is that of the 2016 Indian Premier League champion side Sunrisers Hyderabad head coach Tom Moody. The former Australian batsman’s impressive CV further includes having guided Sri Lanka to the final of the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean. The 52-year-old Moody, a two-time World Cup winner in 1987 and 1999, was shortlisted to become Pakistan coach in 2016 before the PCB opted to bring in Mickey Arthur. g

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 25th, 2018