Before a single ball had been bowled in what became a historic Pakistan Super League (PSL) final in Karachi this year, it was already established that we would see the first foundations of a dynasty laid at the end of it. Both finalists, Islamabad United and Peshawar Zalmi, had won the first two editions, respectively, and the winner here would be the first to two titles.
When reduced to clichés, the match-up felt like a battle of ideologies. On one end was Peshawar, who seemed to be defined by their limping warrior-captain, Darren Sammy. Sammy’s side had stormed into the final on the back of four must-win games, having entered each knowing that a defeat would end their tournament. Facing them were Islamabad United, who had become celebrated for their data-driven approach to squad selection and the tactical genius of their captain, Misbah-ul-Haq, and had set a record for consecutive wins en route to the final.
(Full disclosure: I worked with Islamabad United in PSL2, and with the PSL itself in PSL1.)
The PSL3 final showcased a battle between Peshawar Zalmi captain Darren Sammy’s sheer force of will and the methodical, data-driven approach of Islamabad United. The winner gets to dream of building a legacy
It felt like a battle between the old-school Pakistani cricket style of charismatic geniuses dragging inconsistent teams to glory versus the new-age approach of using data and innovation to find an edge. Of course, such a narrative is extremely reductive — in Abdur Rehman, Peshawar Zalmi’s coaching staff has easily the most innovative and underrated coach in Pakistan. And all of Islamabad United’s data wasn’t prepared for the raft of injuries that decimated their squad, leaving a Luke-Ronchi-shaped veneer to cover up the cracks.
Eventually, despite a late hiccup, the raucous Karachi crowd witnessed a dominant victory for the tournament’s dominant side, as United made it eight wins out of their last nine matches. The team’s progress was always going to be under extreme scrutiny this season, after their title defence last year
was derailed by the emergence of a spot-fixing scandal that saw two of their players, Sharjeel Ahmed and Khalid Latif, being banned after one game of the tournament. United never really recovered, limping to fourth position and bowing out in the first playoff.
PSL3 saw their squad dramatically refreshed, with several young local players taking centre stage from the veterans of the past. Gone were the likes of Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and Saeed Ajmal and, in their place, we saw players such as Hussain Talat, Faheem Ashraf and Asif Ali rise to the top. The team seemed to have zeroed in on packing the side with all-rounders, as multi-talented players such as Samit Patel, Faheem, Shadab Khan, Hussain Talat and Luke Ronchi allowed the team to have a flexible lineup that kept the opposition guessing.
Indeed, injuries seemed to be their greatest opponent, and they left the side with a poor start. With the talismanic Misbah missing the opening encounters, Islamabad started with two losses in their first three matches, with their batting struggling to post decent totals.
The turning point came against a side that would end as the tournament’s laughing stock, but back then it wasn’t seen as so bad. Lahore Qalandars had done really well to restrict Islamabad to just 121/9 in their first innings, and the return of Misbah seemed to have slowed down an already stuttering batting lineup. Somehow though, a dramatic collapse by Lahore took the game to a superover, where Andre Russell’s last-ball six sealed a sensational win.
Team insiders mentioned that the victory transformed the squad’s morale and self-belief, and credited that change in what set them off on their record-breaking run. That match was one followed by a frank meeting in the dressing room, where senior players argued for the batsmen to be allowed to play with more freedom. And that change in mindset immediately bore fruit as United pulled so far ahead of its rivals that it played the remaining tournament with essentially 10 men. Misbah, carrying several injuries, rarely batted and played mainly as just a captain. Yet, other than a defeat to Karachi after having secured their place in the final, United won every other match for the rest of the PSL, even able to afford dropping Misbah for the final.
With five man-of-the-match awards, Luke Ronchi was the breakout star of the side, and it was his name the Karachi crowd chanted the loudest after their cheers for Sammy. Ronchi’s obliteration of the opposition bowling repeatedly allowed United to set the agenda in their matches, particularly the chases. But along with him, the side’s heroes were two youngsters — Hussain Talat came into his own as a late-order batsman, while Faheem Ashraf walked away with the most wickets in the tournament. Add Asif Ali to this list, whose hat-trick of
sixes sealed a momentarily tense chase in the final, and whose power hitting was a breath of fresh air for the long-suffering fans of Pakistani batting. It meant that United could shrug aside the injuries to Andre Russell — arguably the best T20 player in the world — and Rumman Raees, statistically the best T20 bowler in the world. Both Raees and Dre were out before the tournament reached its midway point, yet United barely registered their absence.
It also meant that United’s win this season was in stark contrast to their maiden win. That PSL had been won by a side that started extremely slowly, and then had to win five in a row to survive and lift the trophy. The core of its squad was older, and its strong bowling often supplemented an inconsistent batting lineup. This time round, United were leaner and a lot meaner, brushing aside teams with embarrassing ease, and using its core of all-rounders to be constantly fluid in its approach.
Even the final was threatening to be a lopsided affair when Islamabad blinked near the finish line and threatened to implode spectacularly. But even then, the loss of six wickets for next-to-no runs wasn’t decisive — the team still had a couple of all-rounders left to finish off the match.
The age of their squad as well as the settled nature of their approach means that United can start dreaming of creating a dynasty here. Of course, that dream would be based on just one dominant tournament, but given that their methods have remained largely similar across the three PSLs, it does suggest that the solid foundations kept at the start are beginning to bear fruit.
United’s success should also encourage the other franchises to up their game — both Karachi and Lahore ended with another underwhelming tournament and the attention-grabbing antics of their owners were the only memories their fans took away, yet again. With both Peshawar Zalmi and Quetta Gladiators also looking a bit worse-for-wear after two consistently successful seasons, the rest of the field looks to have been left behind by the current champions. For United however, the next challenge is figuring out how to cement their dominance into a proper dynasty.
The writer tweets @karachikhatmal
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 1st, 2018