Thousands of spectators arrived at National Stadium Karachi on a hot Sunday afternoon to witness the first major cricketing event in the port city in the last nine years.
Nearly 32,000 will witness the showdown between Peshawar Zalmi and Islamabad United as they compete for the Pakistan Super League 2018 title, expected to begin around 8pm local time.
The doors to the stadium had been opened at 12 noon and were supposed to be closed at 5pm, but organisers had to extend the deadline by two hours due to the large numbers of cricket hungry fans still lined up outside.
The closing ceremony of the tournament — featuring the musical talents of Ali Zafar, Strings and Aima Baig, among others — started a little after 6pm.
At the outset of the ceremony, PCB Chairman Najam Sethi thanked the law-enforcement agencies and the federal and Sindh governments for making the holding of the PSL final in Karachi a reality.
Congratulating Karachiites on the return of international-level cricket to their city after nine years, Sethi said the holding of the matches in the country was testament to the fact that "we are ready for the return of international cricket".
The PCB chairman said the tournament did not belong to any political party, leader or state institution, but to the people of Pakistan.
After Aima Baig enthralled the crowd with her hit Coke Studio number Baazi, it was Farhan Saeed and Shehzad Roy who entertained the crowd with their performances.
Later, pop band Strings were joined by the Zalmi's Hasan Ali and Darren Sammy on-stage for their hit anthem from 2003, 'Hai koi ham jaisa'.
High security affair
Hundreds of shuttles had been arranged to transport fans from five designated parking points to the stadium. Spectators — many of whom were donning Zalmi and United merchandise, but also the national colours — were allowed to enter the venue only after multiple security checks.
Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah himself inspected the arrangements and facilities for the match from a helicopter. He directed the organisers to ensure that there is no lapse in facilitating the visitors.
As part of security arrangements, four main roads surrounding the stadium have been closed for traffic. Fire brigades and ambulances are on standby.
Karachi has not staged a high-profile fixture of international standing since Sri Lanka played here in early 2009 — the same year a dozen gunmen had fired on the Islanders’ team bus during their second Test in Lahore. The dastardly terrorist attack had left six of the visiting players wounded and eight others, including two civilians, dead and put a full stop to international teams' tours of Pakistan.
While international cricket returned to Lahore with the staging of the PSL final last year, followed by three T20 Internationals against a World XI side and another versus Sri Lanka last October, Karachi has experienced a long barren run when it comes to top-level cricket.
However, today, the sprawling metropolis finally gets the opportunity to host two top sides for the PSL finale, with next week’s three-match series against current World T20 champions, the West Indies, to follow.
Ronchi vs Akmal
As for the battle in the middle, if gauged by the manner in which the third edition of PSL has panned 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.
Injuries and pullouts have also contributed to the drama.
Karachi’s own representation in the final had been precluded after the city franchise — the 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 United team-mate Mohammad Sami — who is the highest wicket-taker for Islamabad with 36 victims in 26 appearances — now remains the solitary representative for Karachi on either side.
Ideally, Islamabad would have hoped for Misbahul Haq to lead them in the final on home soil, but the now-retired Test captain has been forced to sit it out after sustaining a hairline fracture on 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 doubt.
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 a 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 a 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, today'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.
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).
With additional reporting by Zeeshan Ahmed in Karachi.