POLICEMEN stand guard outside the National Cricket Stadium in Karachi on Wednesday.—AFP
POLICEMEN stand guard outside the National Cricket Stadium in Karachi on Wednesday.—AFP

KARACHI: The toss for the opening match of the seventh edition of the HBL Pakistan Super League on Thursday (today) will feature two award-winning cricket stars in Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan.

Pakistan skipper Babar, who will lead Karachi Kings, was recently named the ICC ODI Cricketer of the Year while defending champions Multan Sultans captain Rizwan won the T20I Cricketer of the Year award.

In November, the Pakistan opening duo led the national side to the T20 World Cup semi-finals in a year that saw them win a record number of 20 Twenty20 Internationals.

A successful 12 months meant new stars were born for Pakistan, including Shaheen Shah Afridi, who won the ICC Cricketer of the Year award for his performances across all three formats. The pacer is set to lead Lahore Qalandars.

The presence of this star power is expected to make this year’s PSL a much more attractive prospect for the fans than ever before.

The broadcast and sponsorship rights of the latest edition of the cash-rich T20 league have been sold for a record-breaking amount and the PSL is now being dubbed as the second-biggest T20 league in the world after the Indian Premier League in terms of viewership.

That despite the absence of many renowned foreign players who usually feature in the IPL.

However, West Indies’ Johnson Charles, New Zealand’s Colin Munro, South African Rilee Rossouw and England’s Chris Jordan and Alex Hales will bring decent value to the competition.

“The HBL PSL has strengthened its reputation and profile as one of the most competitive and challenging leagues, which makes it exciting to follow locally and internationally,” PCB chairman Ramiz Raja said in a statement.

“This year’s event will be a special edition as our ‘incredible three’ — Babar Azam, Mohammad Rizwan and Shaheen Shah Afridi — recipients of the ICC individual awards — will be in action.

“At the back of a fantastic 2021 that has created a feel-good factor in Pakistan cricket, this event will provide the fans a chance to watch the trio in action, also inspiring and attracting the local youngsters to break into the national side and play alongside them.”

Though gate money doesn’t make up a significant chunk of the league’s revenue pie, the recent rise of coronavirus cases across Pakistan has forced the PCB to limit spectators in Karachi — which will host matches until Feb 7 — to 25 per cent only, following recommendations by the National Command and Operation Centre.

No such decision has been taken for Lahore yet, with the city’s Gaddafi Stadium set to host PSL matches from February 10 to 27, including the final.

It’s not only the fans who have to face restrictions due to the pandemic situation. The PCB has arranged strict bio-secure bubbles for the six franchise sides, with the intent to avoid delays at any cost. According to the playing conditions set by the board’s technical committee, matches will go ahead even if 13 players out of the teams’ 20-man squads are available.

In a situation where the player availability is even lower, affected teams will be allowed to pick from a reserve pool. If a Covid-19 outbreak occurs, the tournament will be halted for seven days, bio-secure bubbles will be reset from scratch and double-headers will be held in the remaining days to meet the February 27 deadline.

With Australia, England, New Zealand and West Indies set to tour Pakistan this year, the PCB has no window to reschedule the PSL in case of postponement.

The first match will see the champions from the last two PSL editions lock horns with each other at the National Stadium. While Babar’s Kings will try to make the most of the home advantage, Rizwan’s Sultans will be coming into the tournament with utmost confidence after being able to retain their star performers from their title-winning campaign last year.

The Kings will expect a good show not only from their captain, but from hard-hitting southpaw Sharjeel Khan and veteran left-arm pacer Mohammad Amir.

“I am very excited to be leading Karachi Kings this season. This is the first instance that I will be captaining a side in the PSL and I am looking forward to it,” said Babar.

“The first match of the tournament always has a lot of eyeballs and Multan Sultans can prove to be a tough opposition. I am sure the fans will get to see a thrilling contest.”

Rizwan said he was confident about his team’s capability to go all the way and win the tournament for the second consecutive time.

“We have all the potential to defend our PSL title and we will be taking the field tomorrow with that mindset. This season will present new challenges and we will have to plan accordingly.”

Published in Dawn, January 27th, 2022

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