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THE stage is set for a suspenseful playoff race in the HBL Pakistan Super League which resumes after Monday’s rest day with Islamabad United taking on Multan Sultans at the Sharjah Cricket Stadium.

The topsy-turvy results have seen the leaderboard changing hands almost after every game has added further excitement and high drama with five of the six competing franchises left to contest for the four playoff places from Tuesday onward.

Three successive defeats have clearly plummeted Multan’s mission to the extent that the PSL debutants would be overly anxious not just to win their remaining match against Islamabad but also pray for other results to go their way.

If Multan do succeed in avenging their five-wicket loss to Islamabad in Dubai on Feb 25, then they would provisionally move to the top with 11 points. But that would still leave Shoaib Malik’s outfit in a state of vulnerability, chiefly because current leaders Quetta Gladiators are better placed to displace them swiftly provided they emerge victorious in Wednesday’s clash with Lahore Qalandars.

Defending champions Peshawar Zalmi are also battling to make the cut as they lie in fifth spot and serious danger of being eliminated unless they win the two games they have to play as they attempt to stop the run of three successive defeats they suffered during the third leg at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium.

Peshawar have mustered only six points thus far and could face more humiliation if they are unable to get over the line against Karachi Kings and Lahore in the coming days here and even finished rooted to the bottom of standings at the completion of the league phase.

After their horrible run of six consecutive defeats upfront vanquished their dream of breaking into the playoff for the third season in the running, Lahore have already began to act as the spoilers for the others as Karachi Kings found out in Dubai on Sunday night and they repeat the dose against the champions when they come face to face against each other on Friday.

So Quetta have to guard against being complacent, a point their skipper, Sarfraz Ahmed, is well aware of when he told Dawn on Monday that his charges will take nothing for granted.

“Ideally, it would be great if we win our coming fixture against Lahore because the momentum of winning three games on the trot in Dubai has given us a sense of self-belief. The camaraderie in the squad was very high after we beat Multan in a close finish in the first game of the third stage,” Sarfraz, who also leads Pakistan in all three formats, said.

“That gave the confidence to win the next two matches as well against Karachi and Peshawar convincingly. Remember we had lost to all three of them in the earlier matches and when you win like we did the then it gives the entire team tremendous boost. We are taking every match extremely seriously because one bad day could cost us heavily.”

Quetta — who ended up being the runners-up in the first two seasons to Islamabad and Peshawar, respectively — are likely to be further bolster by the arrival of the hard-hitting England opener Jason Roy, who boasts of a career strike-rate of 144.80 across 162 appearances in T20 cricket.

Roy arrived in Dubai on Monday after being part of the ODI squad which helped England clinch the series 3-2 in New Zealand.

While Roy could be playing against the franchise he initially played for in the PSL, Quetta won’t be able to call upon the services of the talented leg-spinner Rashid Khan since Afghanistan have made it to the Super Six stage of the ongoing ICC World Cup qualifiers in Zimbabwe.

Islamabad, the winners of the inaugural edition two years ago, are in a most advantageous position than their four rivals to qualify as the top-ranked side simply because they have to play three matches over the next four days.

Remaining preliminary-round fixtures: March 13: Islamabad United vs Multan Sultans (9:00pm PST). March 14: Quetta Gladiators vs Lahore Qalandars (9:00pm PST). March 15: Peshawar Zalmi vs Karachi Kings (4:30pm PST); Islamabad United vs Quetta Gladiators (9:00pm PST). March 16: Lahore Qalandars vs Peshawar Zalmi (4:30pm PST); Karachi Kings vs Islamabad United (9:00pm PST).

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018