Yes, there were the traffic jams, ticketing problems, international stars opting out and the darkest of clouds perfectly capable of washing out two days of cricket. But at the end of it all, the Lahore leg of the third season of the Pakistan Super League achieved everything one could’ve asked for.
Perhaps the most important of these goals was to rubberstamp the reality once and for all, that the league in its entirety would have to be played out in the country at the soonest, for the brand to continue to exhibit the growth that it has shown over the three seasons.
What was especially obvious was how Lahore has perhaps now taken a few steps towards normalcy when it comes to hosting these high-profile events.
Everyone, from the officials to the security personnel to the crowds as well, are now firmly acquainted with the drill. However, what could perhaps have been managed better was the ticketing, with the prices for the top-tier enclosures and the confusion over their availability meant that there were empty seats visible in both the playoffs — especially the first eliminator between Peshawar Zalmi and Quetta Gladiators on Tuesday.
Even so, putting aside the off-field matters wherein, Lahore continues to show progress vis-à-vis hosting international events — even if at the cost of traffic choking at large — the two matches on display were brimming over with cricketing thrills.
The first eliminator — the second playoff after last Sunday’s qualifier between Islamabad United and Karachi Kings — was a repeat of last year’s PSL final as Zalmi and Gladiators played out yet another nail-biter.
While Anwar Ali looked set to have pulled off the greatest PSL escape, as Gladiators needed 25 off the final over, Quetta fell short by a single run even as Umaid Asif spilled a catch at long on with three needed off the final delivery.
It was, astoundingly, the third straight playoff game between Zalmi and Gladiators, for the third season running, that has been decided by a single run. However, Gladiators had won the qualifiers in seasons one and two by a solitary run, and it was now Zalmi’s turn to get the better of Quetta in what has become the rivalry of the Pakistan Super League so far.
Zalmi’s 157 batting first was below par, but Gladiators’ chase was significantly jarred by the absence of their marquee foreign stars Kevin Pietersen and Shane Watson, both of whom opted out of touring Pakistan — the latter reportedly dropping out at the 11th hour — which in turn significantly dented Quetta’s top order.
Quetta were overpowered by Peshawar in last year’s final after a similar exodus of foreign stars, and now more than ever — especially with virtually everything else going to script — the organisers should perhaps limit the international contingent in the players’ draft to those who will sign up for the trip to Pakistan.
Better still, play a shorter version entirely in Pakistan next year onwards. A week or 10-day window could be allotted for PSL at home, matches reduced to 16-18, with each side playing the other only once in the group stages that could be divided between Lahore and Karachi.
However, that is something to be deliberated over next year. Right now, it’s all about Sunday’s final in Karachi between United and Zalmi, the latter having beaten the Kings in Wednesday’s final playoff, which like Tuesday’s encounter went all the way to the final over.
A 27-ball 77 by Kamran Akmal in the rain-reduced playoff virtually batted the Kings out of the second eliminator as Zalmi posted 170 in 16 overs. The mounting required run rate proved too big a challenge for Karachi who despite only losing two wickets, and a 117-run stand between Joe Denly and Babar Azam for the second wicket, fell short by 13 runs.
The run fest, especially in the second eliminator, showed that the pitches were properly prepared by the ground staff keeping in mind the needs of modern-day T20 cricket. That a 16-over match was made possible at all on Wednesday is also a testament to the ground staff — and the military helicopters — and their ability to dry an outfield that had absorbed an entire afternoon’s worth of showers in Lahore.
But for now the attention moves from Lahore to Karachi, which will not only be hosting the PSL final, but also the three-match T20 series against West Indies the week after.
It is the clash between the winners of the first PSL and the winners of the second. Zalmi are the team in form having won four knockout matches on the bounce, and having played two pulsating encounters in Lahore, while United were resting after having qualified for the final last Sunday.
Zalmi now have a 3-0 record in PSL matches in Pakistan, while United will be playing their first contest in the country. Although it will be a first for both, and the league, in Karachi.
United have been by far and away the leading side in this year’s PSL. But now the momentum is with Zalmi, as all eyes are set on Karachi, and the return of high-profile cricket to the city after almost a decade.