Pakistan Super League: PSL reopening a cricket-crazy country to the world

By Mazher ArshadCricket journalist
Islamabad United celebrations, 2018
Islamabad United won the PSL in 2018

Cricket is the talk of the town in Karachi.

More than 10 years after Pakistan's most populous city last hosted a Test match, some of the world's biggest names are back for the business end of a 20-over franchise tournament, the Pakistan Super League (PSL).

And with it comes incredible attention; the eyes of a nation.

That's because the league is not only a cricket tournament on home soil, but a message to the world about the improved security situation in the country which became a no-go zone for international players after a terrorist attack on the Sri Lanka cricket team in 2009.

With foreign players and teams now regularly travelling to the country, the perception of Pakistan's security is changing.

Foreign players in Pakistan

New Zealand's Luke Ronchi trains under armed guard in Karachi
New Zealand's Luke Ronchi trains under armed guard in Karachi, where the final eight matches of the competition are being held. The earlier stages of the tournament were held in the UAE

Even though Pakistan has hosted four PSL games in the past, four international cricket tours by men's teams (Zimbabwe in 2015, World XI and Sri Lanka in 2017 and West Indies in 2018) and two women's tours (Bangladesh in 2015 and West Indies in 2019), the ongoing PSL is the largest cricket activity in Pakistan for 10 years.

Over the course of the last week, Karachi has welcomed 39 foreign players from the six competing teams.

Of the 39 foreign stars, 14 have come from the UK: Alex Hales, Chris Jordan, Harry Gurney, James Vince, Laurie Evans, Liam Dawson, Liam Livingstone, Max Waller, Philip Salt, Ravi Bopara, Rikki Wessels, Samit Patel, Tymal Mills and Wayne Madsen.

Shane Watson (Australia), Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard (both West Indies) and Colin Munro (New Zealand) are some of the other big names who are in Pakistan for the tournament.

Watson's presence in the country strengthens the notion players are putting security fears behind them - he had refused to travel to Pakistan in the previous two tournaments.

Hales is another individual who could change perceptions. He was one of the two players who pulled out of England's tour of Bangladesh in 2016 - albeit he travelled there this year for the Bangladesh Premier League.

Lancashire captain Liam Livingstone, who scored 82 off 43 balls on his PSL debut for the Karachi Kings and shared a tournament-record 157-run partnership with Pakistan's Babar Azam in the process, has been impressed by security arrangements.

"Security has been unbelievable," said Livingstone. "There is a massive change in my perception about Pakistan.

"International teams can definitely come back and tour Pakistan. The crowds here deserve international cricket.

"We have been looked after really well. It is nice to bring cricket back to Pakistan. You can obviously see how much people love cricket here. It has been great to put a smile back to their faces.

"With the same security (armoured convoys to the ground), it will be an easy decision for us to come back to Pakistan if there is an opportunity."

How big is the PSL in Pakistan?

A fan holds a banner saying "We want more cricket in Pakistan"
The tournament has been a success with the crowds in Pakistan who are desperate to see international cricket return to the country

Put simply, it's big - both financially and from the fans' point of view.

The latest three-year deal for television and digital rights was sold for $36m (£27.1m) - an increase of 358% on the previous deal - while the three-year title sponsorship deal is now worth $14.3m (£10.8m).

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) also receives $16.5m (£12.4m) per year in franchise fees from the six teams: Islamabad United, Karachi Kings, Lahore Qalandars, Multan Sultans, Peshawar Zalmi and Quetta Gladiators.

When the franchise agreement for Multan Sultans with a Dubai-based business group - who had purchased it for $5.2m in 2017 - was terminated last year due to its inability to meet financial demands, there was a fear the PCB would not be able to meet the price again.

Instead, the new buyer purchased it at $6.35m, which is $3.75m more than the most expensive franchise - Karachi Kings ($2.6m) - cost at the time of the league's inception in 2015.

The amounts may seem small compared to other tournaments such as the Indian Premier League and Australia's Big Bash League, but the PCB believes such deals will become more lucrative once the PSL is fully hosted in Pakistan.

Only eight out of 34 games have been held in Pakistan this year with the rest being played in the UAE, where the Pakistan national team plays the majority of its 'home' matches.

The PCB is expecting to have at least half of the tournament in Pakistan from next year.

Three of the eight games this year were originally scheduled in Lahore but they were shifted to Karachi as Lahore's airspace was closed in wake of the recent India-Pakistan border skirmishes.

In terms of support, nearly 200,000 people will have been at the National Stadium across the seven days the PSL has been in town while, perhaps more impressively, 90% of the television audience in the nation's capital, Islamabad, watched the final between their team and and Peshawar last year.

Has the PSL unearthed any new talent?

PSL fans
The final will be held at the National Stadium in Karachi

Pakistan is renowned for producing exciting cricketers and has continued to do so despite playing such little cricket at home for a decade.

In 2017, the national team won the Champions Trophy in England, while the nation's T20 team are ranked number one in the world.

If anything, the PSL has accelerated the production line, with both Hasan Ali - the player of the tournament in Pakistan's Champions Trophy success - and Fakhar Zaman, the man of the match in the final against India at The Oval, fast-tracked to the national side after impressive showings in the PSL.

This year, in particular, the tournament has been productive for fast bowlers.

A case in point is Mohammad Hasnain, an 18-year-old speedster who has been clocked at 94mph.

His nine wickets in six matches for Quetta Gladiators, at an average of 20.11, have resulted in a call-up to the national squad for the ODI series against Australia which starts in the UAE on 22 March.

Haris Rauf is another fast bowler who has been highly impressive. The 25-year-old has come through the development programme of Lahore Qalandars and taken 11 wickets at 7.41 in the tournament.

Stock photo of Imran Khan
Prime minister Imran Khan - the former World Cup-winning all-rounder - wants to hold all of the 2020 PSL in Pakistan

Among spin bowling talent, 19-year-old left-arm tweaker Umer Khan, who made his T20 debut in the PSL, has been a match-winner for Karachi Kings and appears to have the knack of getting big wickets.

Of his 15 wickets in the tournament, all are of batsmen in the top-five positions.

Shane Watson (twice), AB de Villiers, James Vince, Luke Ronchi and Shoaib Malik are some of the marquee players he has dismissed in his short career.

Livingstone, who is a team-mate of Umer, has been impressed with Pakistan's bowling talent.

"I am surprised how good the bowling has been in the PSL. I haven't played in other leagues so I can't compare it with them but compared to England the bowling has been definitely better in this competition," said Livingstone.

The tournament concludes on Sunday when Quetta Gladiators, led by Pakistan captain Sarfaraz Ahmed, meet Peshawar Zalmi, for whom England all-rounder Chris Jordan took three wickets in Friday's final eliminator against Islamabad United.

And for those three or four hours while the game is ongoing, the nation will stop and watch the cricket.

Could it be that T20 - so long seen as a threat to Test cricket - offers the longer format a route back into Pakistan? The world of cricket certainly hopes so.

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