Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Lahore takes centre stage as PSL enters playoffs phase

Lahore Qalandars to face Multan Sultans in qualifier at Gaddafi Stadium tomorrow (Wednesday)

(L-R) The picture shows Multan Sultans captain Mohammad Rizwan, Islamabad United captain Shadab Khan, Peshawar Zalmi captain Babar Azam and Lahore Qalandars captain Shaheen Shah Afridi. — Twitter/@thePSLt20
(L-R) The picture shows Multan Sultans' captain Mohammad Rizwan, Islamabad United captain Shadab Khan, Peshawar Zalmi captain Babar Azam and Lahore Qalandars captain Shaheen Shah Afridi. — Twitter/@thePSLt20

Packed crowds, high-octane cricket and young talent taking the country by storm — the Pakistan Super League's (PSL) eighth edition has already established itself as a contender for the most exciting edition in the tournament’s history.

The 30 league-stage matches had everything that a cricket enthusiast demands and the playoffs — that commence tomorrow when Lahore Qalandars take on Multan Sultans in the qualifier — promise to add icing on the cake.

The eighth edition of the PSL has seen many records tumble. It has seen the highest successful run chase ever when Multan Sultans chased down 243 against Peshawar Zalmi — the fastest century (by Multan Sultans’ Usman Khan off 36 balls), highest individual score (Jason Roy’s 145 not out), most centuries in a PSL edition (seven) and highest-ever match aggregate in the history of T20 cricket of 515 in the match between Multan Sultans and Quetta Gladiators.

Lahore takes centre stage as PSL enters playoffs phase

As the battle for the prestigious SuperNova Trophy and yearlong bragging rights enters its final stage, Lahore will remain under the spotlight for the entire week as the Gaddafi Stadium stages the much-anticipated matches of this year’s PSL edition.

Lahore Qalandars have their tails up as they enter the playoffs with seven wins. Never before they have won this many matches in the league stage of a PSL edition and the fact that they are the defending champions further adds to their confidence. They were the first team to book a playoff berth.

Table-toppers Qalandars have had a superb run at the Gaddafi Stadium and that this ground is hosting the final stage of the competition is bound to play in their favour.

Fakhar Zaman, who was the highest run-getter in their successful campaign last year, has once again carried their batting. The left-hander is the top run-getter for Lahore Qalandars with 378 runs at a staggering strike rate of 171.04. Abdullah Shafique (193 at 144.02) has played impressive innings since his addition to the playing XI midway in the tournament and their overseas players in Sikandar Raza (198 runs at 188.57) and Sam Billings (179 runs at 146.72) have provided the firepower in the middle.

Qalandars also boast one of the most dangerous bowling lineups that have helped them record the biggest win ever in the PSL by 119 runs against Islamabad United. Their captain Shaheen Afridi (14 wickets at an average of 18.78) leads an attack that is good enough to send chills down the spine of any opposition on any day. 

With Shaheen, Zaman Khan (12 wickets at 22.08) and Haris Rauf (14 wickets at 23.07) make a lethal pace attack that limits the opposition’s scoring options in both powerplay and death overs and Rashid Khan’s wily spin keeps the batters guessing in the middle-overs. The leg-spinner has the most wickets for a spinner this season with 15 scalps at an average of only 13.

“I am delighted with the consistency my team has shown in this edition. This team’s foundation is laid on the values of brotherhood and the way everyone backs and supports each other in the field is just a reflection of that," said Shaheen. 

“We are very thankful to our fans for their continuous support. We have seen houseful matches in the home of Qalandars where the crowd turns out in large numbers to support us. We cannot wait to repay their faith with another title.”

For the first half of the PSL 8, Multan Sultans dominated the points table by rolling over the opposition at their home. Though they have faced more losses than wins since moving out of Multan, Mohammad Rizwan’s side will take heart from the fact that his batting chased down the highest-ever PSL and joint-second highest run-chase overall in T20 cricket, recorded the highest PSL team total of 262 in their last group match. Multan Sultans finished second on the points table.

Their young pacers Abbas Afridi (22 wickets at 14.95) and Ihsanullah (20 wickets at 14.60) lead the bowling charts and they have taken the league by storm. They are two of the three bowlers this season to record a five-wicket haul, and Abbas stepped up brilliantly in the last two matches of the Rawalpindi leg to take nine wickets in two matches. Ihsanullah’s rapid pace and immaculate length bowling have made the life of the batters difficult. Leg-spinner Usama Mir (12 wickets at 25.41) has been instrumental in the middle overs and has shown glimpses of how handy he can be as a tailender.

In the batting, it has been primarily been the story of two Rs for Multan Sultans. Their captain Rizwan is the tournament’s most successful batter with 483 runs at 145.04 and Rossouw is fourth on the list of the highest run-getters with 388 runs at 176.36. Right-handed opener Usman Khan turned heads in Multan Sultans’ last group match with the fastest century of the tournament history when he crossed the 100-run barrier in only 36 balls and laid the platform for his side to post a score as massive as 262. This goes on to show the level of depth that this side has in their ranks.

“The first half of the tournament went really well for us and then we lost the way in between. But, I am very happy with how we have made a comeback strongly and ensured that we qualify for the playoffs," said Rizwan. 

“We enter the playoffs with some great fighting spirit and that is what is needed towards the backend of a tournament like the PSL. You need to have that confidence that you can bounce back from any situation and that record run chase and then exceptional performances from our youngsters like Usman Khan, Abbas Afridi and Ihsanullah have instilled belief in us that we can come back from anywhere. We are eyeing our third consecutive PSL final now, and, with the help of Allah Almighty, we will try to lift the trophy this time," he added. 

Islamabad United and Peshawar Zalmi will meet in the first eliminator on Thursday and the team that loses will get knocked out of the event. The winner will face the loser of the qualifier on Friday.

It has been another good year for Islamabad United — the only team to have lifted the PSL title twice. They have won six matches in the league stage, but their all-out attacking approach has also seen them crash and burn in the three games that they lost. Their only outing in Multan was marred by a 52-run defeat before Lahore Qalandars subjected them to the heaviest defeats by 110 runs in Lahore and 119 runs in Rawalpindi.

That Faheem Ashraf (210 at 147.88) and Hasan Ali (12 wickets at 21.66) have hit the purple patch bodes well for the Shadab Khan-captained side. Azam Khan has been at his destructive best and the hard-hitting wicketkeeper-batter has smashed 280 runs in eight innings at a strike rate of 162.79.

They have a well-knit unit of T20 specialists that has the potential to go all the way and Islamabad United will fancy their chances of winning the coveted title for the third time.

Shadab Khan said: “It has been an exciting season for us, but now we are focused on the future. As a captain, I am pleased with how the players have performed and especially how youngsters have raised their hands in tough situations. The results are not something you can control, but as a team, it is important to remain consistent in your processes and know what you are playing for.

“I am pretty confident with our chances. We have lifted the PSL trophy twice and there is no doubt that we can do it for the third time," he added. 

Peshawar Zalmi were the last side to book a spot in the playoffs, but that does not mean that there are any qualms about their ability to challenge either of the three sides left in the tournament. They have struck gold by promoting youngster Saim Ayub to the top of the order and have produced one of the most elegant and effective opening pairs. Saim and Babar Azam have opened in three matches together and have already produced a partnership of over 150 and over 100 that also at telling run rates.

Saim has struck most half-centuries in the tournament (five in 10 matches) and has accumulated 309 runs at a strike rate of 167. Their captain Babar, who scored his maiden PSL century this season, sits second on the list of the players with most runs with 416 at 146.47. Youngsters Mohammad Haris and Haseebullah with Tom Kohler-Cadmore provide firepower to the middle-order, but that they have allowed the oppositions to chase totals of over 240 in consecutive games is a matter of concern.

Wahab Riaz, with nine wickets in as many matches, has been their most prolific bowler, but they will happily bank on the experience of the pacer to deliver goods in the playoffs, with other pacers in Arshad Iqbal, Azmatullah Omarzai, Aamir Jamal, Jimmy Neeshan playing supporting role.

“I am very happy to see how the youngsters in Peshawar Zalmi have stepped up and made their potential known to the world. Saim Ayub, Muhammad Haris, Haseebullah and Arshad Iqbal have been outstanding and I am backing them to continue to perform and deliver in the Playoffs," said Zalmi's skipper Babar.

“While our batting has done wonderfully well, we need to fix some of the loopholes in our bowling department and I am sure that we will also emerge as a strong bowling unit in Lahore.”

Playoff fixtures

All matches will be played at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium at 7pm.

Wednesday (March 15) – Qualifier – Lahore Qalandars v Multan Sultans

Thursday (March 16) – Eliminator 1 – Islamabad United v Peshawar Zalmi

Friday (March 17) – Eliminator 2 – Loser Qualifier v Winner Eliminator 1

Sunday (March 19) – Final – Winner Qualifier v Winner Eliminator 2