And so the Pakistan Super League (PSL) has moved on to the last set of games to be played in the UAE. The last game in Dubai, between the Karachi Kings and Lahore Qalandars had produced a dramatic super over classic. So expectations were high for the next stage. But if the followers of Pakistan's premier Twenty20 cricket tournament were expecting more nail-biters, they were in for bit of a disappointment in the first game of the final round of matches in the UAE.
The Multan Sultans and Islamabad United met in Sharjah on 25 Match with Islamabad looking for just one more victory to assure themselves of a place in the playoffs and a possible route to their second title. Alex Hales joined the Islamabad squad and immediately made his presence felt with a quickfire 46, but it was Luke Ronchi who claimed the title of best performer for his team with 58 runs to his name. Islamabad's very competitive 185/4 became an even tougher challenge with Samit Patel getting rid of the dangerous Kumar Sangakkara in the first over. A procession of Multan batsmen followed him back to the dugout and it was only Kieron Pollard's 73 which allowed the game to reach the final over, with Islamabad emerging as the comfortable victors by 33 runs.
While the Lahore Qalandar's dismal run in PSL editions with yet another failure to qualify for the playoffs may have disappointed many of their fans, not many would doubt the spirit of the Lahore team during their win over the Quetta Gladiators by 17 runs in the next game.
The star of the show was undoubtedly Fakhar Zaman with a wonderful 94 off 50 balls which helped his side to a very strong 186/4. The Quetta batsmen could never keep up with the chase and apart from the newly-arrived Jason Roy's 36 and Rilee Rossouw's quickfire 42 off 22 balls, the result never seemed in doubt, and the Qalandars registered their third win in a row. The night though saw a bizarre incident with a tiff on the field between Sohail Khan and Yasir Shah, which saw both players throwing the ball at each other. The situation was only brought in control after a timely intervention by Lahore skipper Brendon McCullum. The incident added insult to injury for the beleaguered Qalandars and some comic relief for the bemused spectators.
The winners of 2017, the Peshawar Zalmi faced a do-or-die battle against the Karachi Kings to stay in the tournament and they did not disappoint their fans as they registered a convincing 44 run victory. The architect of the Zalmi's impressive score of 181/6 was Kamran Akmal who rolled back the years with an aggressive 75 off 51 balls, with Saad Nasim and Darren Sammy providing the finishing touches to an excellent batting performance. For their part, the Kings could never really handle the scoreboard pressure. Apart from a refreshing 66 off 50 balls by Babar Azam, the Karachi batting order crumbled in a heap with Shahid Afridi providing some late entertainment with 26 off eight balls which included four sixes.
With the Islamabad United confirmed of a place in the playoffs, their game against Quetta Gladiators simply reinforced their status as firm favourites. The much-vaunted opening pair of Roy and Shane Watson were unable to pile on the runs that Quetta needed while Kevin Pietersen also disappointed, as his team stumbled their way to 147, thanks largely to a sensible 43 from their skipper Sarfaraz Ahmed. Ronchi failed to deliver for Islamabad but JP Duminy continued his fine form to score 54, with the finishing touches applied to the run chase by the highly promising all-rounder Hussain Talat, who was not out on 28, to take his team to a fine six-wicket victory with 10 balls to spare.
Doubts had been expressed by the likes of Quetta Gladiators coach Moin Khan regarding the bowling action of the Lahore Qalandars' Sunil Narine and the PSL umpires took note by filing a report on this issue. With the Qalandars looking desperately to end the tournament on a positive note, Narine's news was a most unwelcome distraction and he was subsequently dropped for their final game against the Peshawar Zalmi.
The Peshawar team's fate at the PSL now hinged on a victory against Lahore, but Anton Devcich smashing 70 off just 42 balls was not what the doctor ordered for them as Lahore posted a substantial 172/4 in their innings. To many, another Lahore win seemed to be on the cards, but Akmal had other ideas. Despite the loss of his opening partner Riki Wessels for only four, the prolific opener decided to take matters in his own hands and proceeded to decimate the Lahore Qalandars bowling, scoring the first 100 of PSL 2018. His majestic 107 not out off just 61 balls took his team to a magnificent and memorable seven-wicket victory and propelled them to the playoff stages and possibly towards retaining their 2017 title.
While the Peshawar Zalmi's anxious wait for qualification was over, it was now time for the Karachi Kings to fashion a victory with a margin that was big enough to ensure that they finished ahead of the Multan Sultans and move a step closer to their wish to play the final in their home city. Regardless of a rather insipid batting display by the Islamabad United, one cannot take away credit from Usman Khan Shinwari, who put in an excellent spell of fast bowling to collect four wickets for just 17 runs.
Afridi also did his part with two wickets to his name, and also became the first Pakistani to pick up 300 T20 wickets. With just 109 runs deemed to be the figure needed to edge out the Multan Sultans for a place in the playoffs, the Karachi Kings found themselves under little pressure despite the loss of three wickets as they went on to win the game by seven wickets, reaching 125/3 in 17 overs.
With the playoff participants now decided, the action moved back to Dubai where a rejuvenated Karachi Kings once again took on the favourites Islamabad United, with the winner having the chance to advance to the final in Karachi. This was a high stakes game without doubt, but the manner in which Karachi started their innings, it looked like nerves would have the better of them. In the space of a few deliveries, Mohammad Sami removed Khurram Manzoor and the in-form Babar Azam. And when stand-in captain Eoin Morgan ended his very forgettable PSL 2018 stint, it was left to the combined brilliance of Joe Denly and Colin Ingram to help Karachi move towards a respectable total. Although Denly did lose his wicket on 51 in bizarre circumstances being out hit-wicket, Ingram stayed to the end to score a valuable 68 not out and guide his side to a respectable 154/4 in 20 overs.
When it's your day, nothing can stop you and Ronchi had one of those days. Dropped a couple of times by the clumsy Karachi fielders, Ronchi went on to smash an incredible 94 not out off only 39 balls and lead the Islamabad United to Sunday's final in Karachi. Ronchi smashed the bowling out of sight and showed why Islamabad are strong favourites for the trophy. They defeated Karachi with an incredible 45 balls remaining. The Kings trudged off the field, but they live to fight another day as they will face the winner of the second playoff between the Quetta Gladiators and Peshawar Zalmi.