To say that 2019 has started with more of a whimper than a bang for Pakistan cricket would be an understatement. The near-disastrous results of the South Africa tour where the Pakistan side lost series in each format will be a cause of concern and a source of embarrassment for the side’s millions of followers and is not the start to the year that they would have hoped for.
The advent of the 2019 edition of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) therefore represents a chance for the nation to take a breather from the string of bad performances that have afflicted the nation’s cricket team this year. With eight of this year’s games to be played in the cricket-mad cities of Lahore and Karachi, PSL 4 will hope to bring cricket to many more Pakistanis this time around and that itself should raise the spirits of many Pakistan cricket lovers in and outside the country, as will the presence of more foreign stars on Pakistani soil than previous years with players such as AB de Villiers and Ian Bell set to play matches in Pakistan.
There is also better news for PSL organisers as they begin to taste the fruits of their hard work since the tournament was first launched in 2016 with a 358% rise for their new broadcast deal, which will run from 2019 to 2022. The deal includes TV and digital streaming rights and is said to be worth approximately US $36 million. Another change in the 2019 version of the tournament will be the addition of Abu Dhabi as a venue and that change should also bring more joy to many fans who live in that city, and hopefully better overall attendances for the tournament as well.
So, the signs are good for the future of Pakistan’s premier Twenty20 (T20) tournament as it heads for yet another high-adrenaline and fun-filled start from 14 February which will see the likes of the Grammy-award winner Pitbull, Marcia Barrett, Aima Baig, Shuja Haider, Fawad Khan and Junoon performing in the curtain raiser.
Once the opening ceremonies are out of the way, the six sides will get down to the serious business of winning the trophy and in that sense, the squads chosen by each side on paper look almost equally capable of lifting the trophy in Karachi on 17 March.
The two-times winners, Islamabad United, will have a new captain, Mohammad Sami, leading the side with the talented Shadab Khan as vice-captain. How much will Islamabad miss their former captain Misbah-ul-Haq is something only time will tell as his personal performances were not a factor in their success in the previous edition of the PSL. The squad itself has familiar faces in Luke Ronchi, Faheem Ashraf, Asif Ali, and Samit Patel, and it would be interesting to see how Sami can harness this power at his hands to deliver a good result for the team.
Darren Sammy ‘Khan’ is the adopted son of Peshawar and its side Zalmi. The enigmatic Windies player has always played an instrumental role in his side’s success in the PSL and will be looked at once again by fans to provide them with the X-factor that is so needed in T20 games. In Peshawar’s new recruit, Misbah-ul-Haq, Darren Sammy will have assistance from a player who has seen it all in his long and distinguished career and the Kamran Akmal boom-or-bust style of batting display is what he will bank on for batting, with Wahab Riaz headlining the bowling power of the Zalmi side.
When it comes to the best also-ran sides in the PSL, one can look no further than Lahore Qalandars who seem to arrive at each episode of the tournament wearing looks of champions but have made a habit of leaving empty-handed and with not many victories to show for their efforts. Brendon McCullum was their skipper, but this time they have the services of the vastly-experienced Mohammad Hafeez as captain and odds do favour their rise to the top. Whether the man nicknamed ‘The Professor’ can get the best out of his wards — which include the likes of AB de Villiers, Fakhar Zaman, and Shaheen Shah Afridi — is yet to be seen, but there is little doubt that Lahore in PSL 4 are blessed with as good a squad as any other team.
The national Head Coach Mickey Arthur has also got a similar role for Karachi Kings. Apart from lifting the trophy in 2019, the thought of a fairytale final match in Karachi should inspire captain Imad Wasim who was in good form in South Africa. Mohammad Amir and Usman Khan Shinwari’s recent lacklustre international form will be a source of worry for Karachi supporters. However, it is hoped that somewhere along the line, their batting strength, powered by the likes of Imad Wasim, Babar Azam, Colin Munro, and enterprising new recruit Sikandar Raza will provide enough firepower to aid the bowlers.
Quetta Gladiators are the unsung heroes of PSL when it comes to providing the most entertainment for fans. Being finalists on two occasions, the Quetta side under the leadership of Sarfraz Ahmed, will once again look to excel in 2019. For Sarfraz, the preceding weeks have been stressful and one would hope that his recent troubles have not left a lasting impact on his abilities to lead. He will have the likes of Umar Akmal, Sunil Narine, Shane Watson, and Sohail Tanvir to bank on to deliver their best. For Akmal, the Quetta Gladiators chapter in his PSL involvement is likely to be less traumatic than the Lahore Qalandars’ one which could safely be termed as disastrous.
From Multan Sultans to The Sixth Team, and back to Multan Sultans has been the way things have gone for the South Punjab side. Now, under new management and a new coach, the Shoaib Malik-led Sultans will be looking to regroup and deliver. They will have the services of a man known to have made the T20 format his own, a certain Shahid Afridi, who will turn 39 on 1 March and given his performances in the recently concluded BPL, should provide comfort and performances to his side. With a pace-bowling attack which boasts the likes of Junaid Khan, Mohammad Abbas, and Mohammad Irfan, one can expect the Multan Sultans to take the fight to the opposition on more occasions than one.
Apart from watching the well-established players fight it out in the middle, the eyes of PSL fans will be on some of the players who could become the finds of the tournament and truly represent the success of the whole PSL project. In that regard, it’s instructive to remember the names of Pakistan’s upcoming talents such as Mohammed Musa, Rizwan Hussain, Ali Imran, Umer Khan, Sameen Gul, Nabi Gul, Umair Masood, Harris Rauf, Mohammad Ilyas, Ali Shafiq, Mohammad Hasnain, and Ghulam Mudassar. There are many aims of T20 tournaments, but Pakistan cricket would benefit immensely if some of these younger cricketers announce themselves, learn from the participating array of international stars, and eventually wear the national colours.