The second round of games at the Dubai Sports City Stadium in the ongoing Pakistan Super League kicked-off with some rather disappointing news for the 2016 Champions, Islamabad United, when Andre Russell bid a premature farewell to the 3rd edition of the PSL, after suffering a hamstring injury. To say that Islamabad will dearly miss the services of Russell will be an understatement, as earlier in the tournament his heroics in the super over ensured his team won a thrilling contest against Lahore Qalandars.
Multan Sultans began their second stint in Dubai with an impressive and flawless performance to defeat Peshawar Zalmi by 19 runs, with Sohaib Maqsood's swashbuckling innings one of the highlights of the tournament so far as he bludgeoned his way to 85 from just 42 balls as Multan Sultans set a robust target of 184. Sohail Tanvir and Kieron Pollard then took 3 wickets each to stifle any real chances of victory for Peshawar, although Mohammad Hafeez's gallant 56 runs off 41 balls did give his team a glimmer of hope but proved fruitless in the final analysis.
It took the combined might of the Quetta Gladiators batting strength powered by Shane Watson and Rilee Rossouw, and the presence of mind of Pakistan's Under 19 captain Hasan Khan in the next game which brought an abrupt end to the meteoric progress of Multan Sultans. A target of 153 runs built upon Shoaib Malik's 65 not out off 43 balls had looked formidable, especially with Umar Gul taking 6 wickets on his PSL 2018 debut but Hasan Khan’s enthralling six in the final over sealed the game for Quetta with just 1 ball remaining.
So far in the tournament, the headlines had strictly been about the matches but the issue of 'soft signals' by the on-field umpires briefly changed all that during the Multan Sultans-Quetta game when what seemed a superb catch by Saif Badar went unrewarded due to the incapability of the umpire to make a proper on-field ruling. One fears that this will not be the last time we will see such a situation in the PSL and some sort of rethink is required to avoid such farcical situations.
Meanwhile, the Lahore Qalandars' sorry string of performances showed no sign of lessening as in the next encounter in Dubai, Islamabad United duly crushed them by 6 wickets. Whilst Luke Ronchi’s incredible form was a great positive for Islamabad as he put the Lahore bowlers to the sword with 77 runs off 41 balls, the inability for the much-vaunted Qalandars to lift themselves to challenge the other side's was fast becoming a source of concern with pressure on Brendon McCullum mounting with each loss.
Whilst McCullum could be rightly justified in expressing anger at his team's dismal form, rookie captain Imad Wasim also had some worries to think about. Facing a rejuvenated Quetta Gladiators in game 19, Karachi Kings came across an in-form Shane Watson who blasted their bowling to all parts scoring 90 not out off just 58 balls. He wasn't alone in enjoying the fun as Kevin Pietersen also decided to help out with 52 off 34 balls. Karachi Kings then made a meal of a 181 run target, succumbing to a heavy 67 run defeat. Whilst the veteran Shahid Afridi failed with the bat, the young Mohammad Nawaz from Quetta followed-up his performance against Multan Sultans in the previous game where he took 1 wicket for 18 runs with yet another splendid outing, finishing up with another economical spell of 1 wicket for 17 runs in this game.
If one was to look for an uplifting tale from PSL 2018, one should not look any further than what transpired in the next game between Multan Sultans and the Lahore Qalandars. The much-talked about young fast-bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi who earned praise from none other than the great Rahul Dravid at the Under-19 World Cup, put in a fairytale performance to pick up 5 wickets for just 4 runs. The sight of the youngster demolishing the opposing batting line-up seemed to infuse a new sense of optimism in the Lahore squad and with the experience of Brendon McCullum and some largesse by Multan fielding, the Qalandars finally won their first game at the PSL by 6 wickets. For a brief while, it looked as if the long-promised rise to the top for the Lahore team was upon us but the coming games were to put an end to these hopes.
Islamabad’s quiet but steady rise to the top continued with JP Duminy stroking a fine 73 not out off just 54 balls to help his side to an impressive 182/5 against Peshawar Zalmi who once again had the services of their larger than life captain, Darren Sammy. The Peshawar Zalmi batting effort was then systematically dismantled by some brilliant spin bowling by Samit Patel and Zafar Gohar who took 4 and 3 wickets respectively. In the end, an entertaining partnership between Umaid Asif and Wahab Riaz which could help in the NRR calculations was the only positive for a lacklustre Zalmi side, as Islamabad United ended up as comfortable victors by 26 runs.
With losses in previous games for Karachi Kings and Multan Sultans, the clash in game 22 was an important one for both teams to continue their march towards the final in Karachi. For Karachi Kings, the 'demotion' of Afridi from the opener's slot worked to perfection as Joe Denly took apart the Multan attack scoring 78 off just 55 balls to help his team to 188/3 in 20 overs. The sheer weight of scoreboard pressure never allowed Multan a say in the final outcome as they lost wickets in quick succession. Whilst Afridi, as his habit nowadays, was outstanding with his bowling once again picking 3 wickets for 18 runs which lead to a one-sided 63-run victory for his side. On the negative side the match was marred by a heated exchange between Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammad Amir with both players lucky to escape a reprimand from the match referee.
Even after their long-awaited first win, Lahore Qalandars rather precarious position in the points table meant that a win by Peshawar Zalmi against Quetta Gladiators was their only chance to hold on to any realistic hopes of staying in the reckoning for a spot in the later stages of the PSL. And for a while, Darren Sammy's brave cameo of 36 off 19 balls to take his side to a presentable 157/5 looked as if it could guarantee a reprieve for the Qalandars. However, some aggressive batting once again by Watson (37) at the top and an equally flourishing finish by the Quetta and Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed who took his side home with an unbeaten 45 runs off 31 balls to give them a 6 wicket victory, ensured that Lahore Qalandars will not feature in the final 4 of this six-side franchise based tournament.
And with their ultimate fate known in the 3rd edition of the PSL, Lahore Qalandars met Karachi Kings for the final game in Dubai for 2018. At stake nothing more than pride for the Qalandars and for Karachi an opportunity to continue their positive momentum and top the table. What took shape was an incredible game of cricket which had everything you could wish for in a T20 match. Fielding lapses, some superb bowling, glimpses of fantastic batting, some mediocre bowling, puzzling batting, brilliant catches, confusion, chaos and ultimately a win for Lahore. Karachi's 163/5 looked a competitive total with Babar Azam leading the way with 61 off 49 balls, ably supported by Lendl Simmons' 55 off 39 balls. Lahore looked in good shape on 103/2 in the 13th over but chaos and calamity meant that the game ended up with a super over as Gulraiz Sadaf was run out off the last ball going for a second run. The super over saw the superb Sunil Narine hold his nerve and restrict Karachi to just 8 runs when they required 12 runs to win. A breathtaking match between the arch-rivals and historic cricketing centres in Pakistan which had audiences and fans on their edge of the seats.
The PSL show moves back to Sharjah on Tuesday with it all to play for all teams apart from Lahore Qalandars, as competition heats up for places in the latter stages of what is proving to be an excitement tournament.