CRICKET: WHO WILL FINALLY WIN PSL V?

Published November 8, 2020
Ben Dunk on his way to a brisk 99 off 40 deliveries that helped Lahore Qalandars win against Karachi Kings when the franchises met earlier during the league matches in March
Ben Dunk on his way to a brisk 99 off 40 deliveries that helped Lahore Qalandars win against Karachi Kings when the franchises met earlier during the league matches in March

When the fifth edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) was abruptly halted on the eve of the final playoffs due to the outbreak of the coronavirus in the middle of March, everyone was left in a quandary about whether the tournament would even see out its completion.

While the fate of the T20 jamboree was hanging in the balance, frustration was also gradually emerging among the four qualifying franchises — Multan Sultans, Karachi Kings, Lahore Qalandars and Peshawar Zalmi.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) was weighing the options about what route to take a couple of weeks after staging its first PSL entirely on home soil. Playing all the league matches at home had already been a resounding success as crowds thronged the stadia in Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Multan in big numbers.

The easy way out would have been to declare the Multan Sultans champions on the basis of them topping the standings before the abrupt suspension of the tournament. But the PCB announced in early July its intention of finishing PSL’s Season Five in November, at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore.

This was a relief to PSL fans because, unlike the rest of the world, Pakistan escaped the worst of the impact of the pandemic. Even the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games had to be postponed until July next year. Several global annual sporting tournaments were also either postponed — the French Open from its permanent May/June slot to September/October, and the Tour de France cycling race for example — or cancelled, such as the Wimbledon tennis championships.

Playoffs for PSL 2020, which were interrupted due to the cononavirus outbreak, will take place in Karachi from next week. Eos takes a look at the four teams that have qualified and what can be expected from them

The staging of major competitions and series in a bio-secure bubble environment has become a norm after the advent of Covid-19. The backend of PSL V’s preliminary round already had a taste of it when Karachi and Lahore staged the final four fixtures behind closed doors, in front of empty stands.

But there was another twist in the tale because the four remaining PSL V matches had to be moved to Karachi after the meteorological department predicted Lahore would be engulfed in smog around the time of the playoffs. With health authorities predicting a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases across the country in the coming weeks, and provincial governments contemplating another lockdown as part of measures to stave off catastrophe, it is still far from clear what the future holds.

Despite the uncertainty, the contesting franchises still have to assemble the strongest possible squads. Changes were already anticipated to the original group of players who participated back in February/March due to international call-ups taking some out of the equation in November. How the teams build up for the final charge after eight months of inactivity remains to be seen, but let’s look at how things are shaping up for the franchises.

Karachi Kings will surely miss their head coach Dean Jones after his untimely demise in late September. A two-time title winner in 2016 and 2018 with Islamabad United, Jones’s incomparable status — both in the coaching role and as a mentor — are well-documented in the annals of PSL.

But the Kings will be fortunate to have Alex Hales — who had headed home prematurely after reporting ill during the last week of the league fixtures — back in service, with the West Indian Sherfane Rutherford replacing the South Africa-bound Chris Jordan. They will be serious contenders for the crown with a good mix that also includes Pakistan’s limited-overs captain Babar Azam, who will play under Imad Wasim.

Peshawar Zalmi, the 2017 champions, boast the highest win percentage (56.36 per cent) among the remaining teams and have also won the most matches (31). Their 2020 campaign, however, was full of jitters and a bit disjointed too — they barely managed to sneak through to grab the last available berth on a superior net run-rate after ending up level on nine points alongside the Quetta Gladiators.

But Zalmi are bolstered by the signing of former South Africa skipper Faf du Plessis, who will be making his PSL debut as a replacement for West Indies limited-overs captain Kieron Pollard (who is away on a New Zealand tour). Meanwhile, Carlos Brathwaite — now sadly a non-regular for the West Indies — will attempt to nail down a spot in the playing XI. Zalmi have also Liam Livingstone available as they prepare to win the PSL for a second time.

If any side really came to the party with real panache and fervour, it was the Lahore Qalandars. Finishing at the bottom of the pile in all the four past seasons — and winning only 10 out of 36 previous encounters — and also losing their opening three games of the latest campaign, Qalandars roared into contention on the back of five victories from their remaining seven league matches. The rebirth of Qalandars has been one of the most heartening stories of the Pakistan Super League.

Ben Dunk carries Qalandars’ hopes this time after the 33-year-old Australian set alight the event with a couple of dazzling knocks, including a hurricane ton. He will be aided by the Bangladesh opener Tamim Iqbal, alongside the ever-present Samit Patel and the likes of our own Fakhar Zaman and Shaheen Shah Afridi.

Meanwhile, Mahmudullah, the experienced Bangladesh all-rounder, teams up with regulars Rilee Rossouw and Imran Tahir at Multan Sultans. The Sultans were the last franchise to join the PSL bandwagon in Season Three and have since made rapid improvement. They managed a record six wins this time, guaranteeing themselves number one placing and the elusive Qualifier spot. Multan Sultans will sorely miss Moeen Ali in their line-up but are fortunate to have James Vince playing in the playoffs.

The most attractive part of virtually all franchise-based T20 leagues across the cricketing globe is the converging of overseas players. The PSL has been no exception to this notion. But there are clouds of uncertainty on the horizon on that front, chiefly because of overseas players’ international duties. The majority of 17 cricketers from England are unlikely to commit themselves for the playoffs in the wake of a planned tour to South Africa by the 50-over World Cup champions.

There is, however, added incentive for the qualifying teams in the coming days. Had the original plan gone through, the Qalandars would have played arch-rivals Karachi Kings at the semi-final stage, which would have knocked one of them out. But now the organisers have restored the customary playoff system and the Qalandars will be trying their luck in the first of the two Eliminators when they square off against Peshawar Zalmi. Multan Sultans will play Karachi Kings in the Qualifier — the winners of this clash will automatically make the Nov 17 final, while the losers will get another chance to make the title-decider by facing the winners of Qalandars-Zalmi clash in the second Eliminator.

It would be a fitting way to bid PSL V adieu if the big final brings together Karachi Kings and Lahore Qalandars in what promises to be a fascinating duel …

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 8th, 2020

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