DUBAI: With Multan Sultans added to the mix, the third edition of HBL Pakistan Super League (PSL) begins in earnest from Thursday as Peshawar Zalmi launch their title defence against the newest franchise here at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium.
Both Multan skipper Shoaib Malik and his Peshawar counterpart Darren Sammy, however, will have to a backseat for a while before the toss takes place to herald the cricketing action on the playing field due to a marathon star-studded glitzy opening ceremony that would last two hours with a hosts of celebrities — including American singer-cum-dancer Jason Derulo, PSL official anthem performer Ali Zafar and the veteran Sufi singer Abida Parveen — taking the centre stage up front.
Arguably, the most expensive PSL franchise at $5.2 million per annum, Multan Sultans will be keen to make an early impression to justify their team value and with each side to 10 matches before the 30-game league round concludes, the race for the top-four slots is wide open than ever before.
In their endeavour to bring back international cricket back to Pakistan, the PCB has scheduled two playoff fixtures in Lahore and the final in Karachi, the country’s most populated city which has not hosted topflight cricket for nine years now.
The real success of the tournament would entirely depend on the presence of first-choice international players for those three matches on Pakistan soil after Quetta Gladiators’ title aspirations were shattered by non-availability of Kevin Pietersen, Kumar Sangakkara, Luke Wright, Rilee Rossouw and Tymal Mills for last year’s final that saw Peshawar clinch victory hands down with a full-strength XI.
To avoid a repetition of what happened to Sarfraz Ahmed’s depleted squad of players in Lahore last March, the organisers this time added a clause in the contracts to prevent pullouts by the overseas players at the business end of the competition while ensuring only those would be picked who are willing to travel to Pakistan.
Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) chairman Najam Sethi said he hopes that in 2019 the entire tournament will be played at home.
“That will pave the way for a full series in Pakistan by a top team,” Sethi said on the eve of the tournament. “We are very satisfied that PSL has become an international brand in two years.”
Busy schedules mean top foreign players such as England ODI and T20 skipper Eoin Morgan, Alex Hales and Jason Roy are only available for part of the tournament, while several others have already pulled out. Chris Lynn’s absence is a huge blow for Lahore Qalandars after the explosive Australian right-hander dislocated his shoulder on Wednesday while fielding during the New Zealand innings in the tri-series final in Auckland.
Likewise, Peshawar will miss Bangladesh’s top star Shakib Al Hasan, who has also decided to skip the event because of a hand injury.
Wasim Akram, Multan’s team director and bowling coach, stressed that people are also eager to seek new talent from Pakistan.
“We found Shadab Khan, Fakhar Zaman and Hasan Ali from the first two editions of the PSL so the main aim is to hone the talent of local players,” he said. “And there are several exciting signings this time also, which augurs well for the future.”
At the other end, the likes of Misbah-ul-Haq and Shahid Afridi are, they say, on their last legs, with both stalwarts seeking their second team titles; Misbah skippered Islamabad United to glory in the 2016’s inaugural edition, while Afridi has switched to Karachi Kings after being part of the trophy-winning Peshawar team.
Schedule (starting times in PST)
First leg, Dubai International Cricket Stadium:
Feb 22: Peshawar Zalmi vs Multan Sultans (10:00 pm).
Feb 23: Karachi Kings vs Quetta Gladiators (4:30pm); Lahore Qalandars vs Multan Sultans (9:00 pm).
Feb 24: Islamabad United vs Peshawar Zalmi (4:30 pm); Quetta Gladiators vs Lahore Qalandars (9:00 pm).
Feb 25: Islamabad United vs Multan Sultans (4:30pm); Karachi Kings vs Peshawar Zalmi (9:00pm).
Feb 26: Karachi Kings vs Lahore Qalandars (9:00pm).
Feb 27: REST DAY
Second leg, Sharjah Cricket Stadium:
Feb 28: Islamabad United vs Quetta Gladiators (9:00 pm).
March 1: Quetta Gladiators vs Peshawar Zalmi (9:00 pm).
March 2: Karachi Kings vs Multan Sultans (4:30 pm); Islamabad United vs Lahore Qalandars (9:00pm).
March 3: Quetta Gladiators vs Multan Sultans (4:30 pm); Peshawar Zalmi vs Lahore Qalandars (9:00pm).
March 4: Karachi Kings vs Islamabad United (9:00 pm).
March 5: REST DAY
Third leg, Dubai International Cricket Stadium:
March 6: Multan Sultans vs Peshawar Zalmi (9:00 pm).
March 7: Quetta Gladiators vs Multan Sultans (9:00 pm).
March 8: Lahore Qalandars vs Islamabad United (4:30 pm); Quetta Gladiators vs Karachi Kings (9:00 pm).
March 9: Multan Sultans vs Lahore Qalandars (4:30pm); Peshawar Zalmi vs Islamabad United (9:00pm).
March 10: Multan Sultans vs Karachi Kings (4:30 pm); Peshawar Zalmi vs Quetta Gladiators (9:00 pm).
March 11: Karachi Kings vs Lahore Qalandars (9:00 pm).
March 12: REST DAY
Fourth leg, Sharjah Cricket Stadium:
March 13: Multan Sultans vs Islamabad United (9:00 pm).
March 14: Lahore Qalandars vs Quetta Gladiators (9:00pm).
March 15: Peshawar Zalmi vs Karachi Kings (4:30 pm); Quetta Gladiators vs Islamabad United (9:00 pm).
March 16: Lahore Qalandars vs Peshawar Zalmi (4:30 pm); Islamabad United vs Karachi Kings (9:00 pm).
March 17: REST DAY
March 18: Qualifier — No. 1 vs No. 2 (Dubai International Cricket Stadium, 9:00 pm).
March 19: REST DAY
March 20: Eliminator 1 — No. 3 vs No. 4 (Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore)
March 21: Eliminator 2 — Qualifier losers vs Eliminator 1 winners (Gaddafi Stadium, Lahore)
March 22: REST DAY
March 23: REST DAY
March 24: REST DAY
March 25: Final (National Stadium, Karachi).