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Big-time cricket returns to Karachi after nine years

Updated March 25, 2018

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A GROUP of cheerleaders rehearse in the National Stadium Karachi on Saturday for the PSL final to be played on Sunday.—White Star
A GROUP of cheerleaders rehearse in the National Stadium Karachi on Saturday for the PSL final to be played on Sunday.—White Star

KARACHI: The nine-year itch of National Stadium Karachi (NSK) holding its first major cricket fixture in this city of lights is on the threshold of culminating when Peshawar Zalmi defend their HBL Pakistan Super League crown against inaugural champions Islamabad United here on Sunday.

Karachi has not staged a high-profile fixture of international standing since Sri Lanka played here in early 2009 — the year that saw the end of foreign teams’ visits when a dozen gunmen fired on the Islanders’ team bus during the second Test at Lahore. The dastardly terrorist attack left six of the visiting players wounded and eight others, including two civilians, dead.

While international cricket returned to Lahore with the staging of the PSL final last year, followed by three T20 Internationals against the World XI and another versus Sri Lanka last October, Karachi has experienced a long barren run of no top-level cricket here.

Peshawar Zalmi to defend PSL crown against Islamabad United today

However, on Sunday, the sprawling metropolis finally gets an opportunity of hosting top sides with the PSL finale and with the next week’s three-match series against current World T20 champions, the West Indies, to follow.

The build-up to the grand final in the bustling city of 21 million has been a breakneck race against time as the famous cricketing arena underwent a semi-cosmetic refurbishment during the last couple of months. The stark contrast, though, for those lucky ticket-holders and the millions who will be glued to TV sets wherever they maybe on the match day is the roofless outlook of the main enclosures.

The acid test for Pakistan’s commercial hub — which in the not-too-distant-past had been plagued by ethnic violence, terrorism and civic problems — is to ensure foolproof security for the fans, the teams and hordes of VIPs who will be in attendance at the stadium. There are other stiff challenges too such as keeping the traffic storm from running riot, etc.

However, keeping the tolerance levels of cricket-starved, security wary fans in check is, perhaps, the biggest of all challenges for Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah’s government as well as the law enforcement agencies.

To give it due credit, the Sindh government has left no stone unturned in providing a peaceful environment in the week leading up to Sunday’s final while the LEAs have been extra vigilant throughout this period, with the roads around the NSK profusely beefed up by Rangers and the local police taking positions at strategic points.

There is an air of hope and anticipation as the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) hierarchy strives to bring international cricket back in the city, and the country, on a full-time basis with the PSL final being a crucial step in this direction.

The tremendous hype for the big game and the enthusiasm shown by Karachiites in the build up to the final underlines the resilience and sporting spirit of the natives who seem determined to thwart the depression, the morosity that has set in the city over the past decade or so and which has seldom provided its inhabitants the opportunity to enjoy, celebrate and breathe freely.

As for the battle in the middle, if gauged by the manner in which the third edition of PSL has spread out, the two best teams have qualified for the title-decider on sheer merit to set up a fitting finale after hectic competition that commenced on Feb 22. Inevitably, injuries and pullouts have also contributed to the drama.

There is no time for being sentimental, though, despite the fact that Karachi’s representation has been radically cut short after the city’s franchise — Karachi Kings — made a disappointing exit in the second eliminator against Peshawar in Lahore on Wednesday night.

With Rumman Raees long sidelined by a crippling knee injury in the early stages of the tournament, his Islamabad team-mate Mohammad Sami — who is the highest wicket-taker for them with 36 victims in 26 appearances — now remains the solitary hometown representative on either side in what promises to be a fantastic battle between two evenly-balanced sides entering the arena on Sunday.

Ideally, Islamabad would have hoped for Misbah-ul-Haq to lead them in the final on home soil but the now-retired Test captain of Pakistan is forced to sit out after sustaining a hairline fracture in his wrist caused by a rising delivery from Karachi Kings speedster Tymal Mills during the last league-round fixture in Sharjah on March 16.

Rumman led Islamabad twice in the early part of the tournament and should have been the obvious choice but the vice-captain himself got injured quite seriously and his participation in the T20 series against the West Indies is shrouded in doubts.

The responsibility of leadership, therefore, has been thrust upon Jean-Paul Duminy, the gutsy South African who carried out the job handsomely in the qualifier at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium last Sunday when Islamabad annihilated Karachi without any sweat by eight wickets to win with 45 deliveries to spare - a PSL record.

The architect of that victory was Luke Ronchi, who has made tremendous impact in his maiden PSL with 383 runs in 10 matches already under his belt from the top of the order with the icing on the cake being the blistering 39-ball 94 not out in the qualifier.

In fact Sunday’s big clash is bound to be an intense confrontation between Ronchi and Kamran Akmal, the pair of 36-year-olds and both wicket-keeper/batsmen. Kamran has been the mastermind of Peshawar’s late resurgence in the competition after it appeared at one point they won’t make the cut.

While Kamran has blazed his way to the top of the batting chart this year with 424 runs, Ronchi is only 37 runs behind the Pakistan discard who was the player-of-the-tournament in the 2017 edition with 353 runs, as they prepare to have another go to outscore each other.

Darren Sammy, presently hampered by a knee injury, has been the inspirational force behind Peshawar as the two-time World T20 title-winning West Indies captain is looking forward to add a second PSL trophy to his already impressive CV.

Overall, there is nothing to choose between these two fighting units with Islamabad just holding a one win advantage in their seven head-to-head meetings. In this edition they met twice in Dubai. Peshawar won the first game against Islamabad by 34 runs on Feb 24 but the latter levelled up by sealing a 26-run success on March 9.

Teams (from):

ISLAMABAD UNITED: Luke Ronchi, Sahibzada Farhan, J.P. Duminy (captain), Hussain Talat, Asif Ali, Samit Patel, Shadab Khan Fahim Ashraf, Amad Butt, Mohammad Sami, Steven Finn, Zafar Gohar, Chadwick Walton, Iftikhar Ahmed.

PESHAWAR ZALMI: Kamran Akmal, Andre Fletcher, Mohammad Hafeez, Saad Nasim, Darren Sammy (captain), Liam Dawson, Umaid Asif, Chris Jordan, Wahab Riaz, Hasan Ali, Sameen Gul, Mohammad Asghar, Khushdil Shah, Ibtisam Sheikh, Khalid Usman.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pakistan) and Shozab Raza (Pakistan).

TV umpire: Ahmed Shahab (Pakistan).

Match referee: Roshan Mahanama (Sri Lanka).

Published in Dawn, March 25th, 2018