A newly expanded HBL Pakistan Super League, which is due to culminate in matches in Lahore and Karachi, begins in Dubai on Thursday evening.
The third season of Pakistan’s Twenty20 competition has a variety of new players to be excited about, with the likes of Jofra Archer and Shaheen Afridi set to debut. It remains, though, an unpredictable tournament to call.
Last season: champions
Darren Sammy often refers to himself as #ChocolateMan on his Twitter feed, and it is difficult to imagine he could be any more sweet.
Having taken his Peshawar Zalmi side – including the full quota of regular overseas players – to Lahore for last year's final, Sammy is the darling of all PSL supporters, not just those of his franchise. Some have even taken to calling him Darren Sammy Khan.
His legacy is already entrenched, but he would be happy with another trip back to Pakistan next month.
“We as Peshawar are going to do our best to bring out the yellow storm and defend our title,” he said.
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Last season: runners up
Sarfraz Ahmed attracted the biggest cheer of anyone at the well-populated trophy launch at the Dubai International Stadium on Tuesday.
Which is quite some commendation, given that he shared the stage with two highly-popular overseas figures in Sammy and Brendon McCullum, as well as Misbah-ul-Haq, statistically Pakistan’s most successful captain.
Overseeing last year’s Champions Trophy final win against India has obviously gained him a perhaps inexhaustible supply of credit in the bank.
He would not mind getting over his PSL hex, too, though, having seen his Quetta side lose the first two finals.
Last year: third
Sammy summed it up best when he looked across the top table at Tuesday’s trophy unveiling at Shahid Afridi, and said: “You look strange in blue, brother.”
Which he does. Afridi was the big off-season PSL trade, after switching the Peshawar franchise he started out captaining in 2016 for the Karachi Kings.
Salman Iqbal, the Karachi owner, is glad to have the player who has traditionally sold the most tickets of any Pakistani cricketer for matches in the UAE in the past.
On the field, Afridi’s leg-spin will complement an enviable bowling attack that will also involve captain Imad Wasim, Tymal Mills, Usman Shinwari, Mohammed Amir and Mohammed Irfan Jr.
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Last year: fourth
Few people are as well-credentialed as to cope with the sort of challenges that beset Islamabad United last year as Misbah, their captain.
First they lost Andre Russell, the star of their title win in 2016, to a one-year doping suspension, then they were afflicted by a spot-fixing controversy.
It showed in their performances, as the defending champions slipped towards the back of the pack, but they are back to contend again this year.
“All the teams are experienced, they know this franchise cricket, and the competition is getting tougher and tougher,” Misbah said.
Last year: fifth
Lahore’s chances of improving on their dismal finishes to the first two PSL seasons suffered a major blow when Chris Lynn was ruled out by the shoulder injury he suffered in the Tri-Series final against New Zealand on Wednesday.
Lynn and Brendon McCullum, his captain at both Qalandars and Brisbane Heat, had been nicknamed the “Bash Brothers” in Australia, and Aaqib Javed, the new coach, was excited about pairing them together.
“Lynn and Baz get along really well, and are top players,” Aaqib had said on Tuesday.
Then, a day later, Lynn dislocated his right shoulder, in Auckland. “At this stage Chris will not travel to the Pakistan Super League in Dubai,” Alex Kontouris, Australia’s physio, said.
Najam Sethi, the PSL chairman, said the “the biggest leap forward” for PSL 3 is to have Multan Sultans involved for the first time.
The league felt ripe for expansion, and going from five teams to six should hardly be overly challenging.
Whether the new franchise can be competitive straight away is debatable, even if Sethi said they have “really shown the way forward”.
They will be captained by Shoaib Malik, who did a mediocre job in the same role with Karachi Kings in 2016, to the extent he had handed over the armband before the first season was out.