In his latest article for FirstPost Sports, Saj reviews Islamabad United's victorious campaign in the 2018 season of the Pakistan Super League.
By Saj Sadiq (26th March, 2018)
They came in their thousands; men, women, children; old and young citizens of Pakistan all driven by the love of the game and the yearning to watch a game of high quality cricket being played in Karachi after nine long years.
The lines to get into the iconic National Stadium were long, roads closures caused inconvenience and the security was extraordinarily strict. But the smiles on the faces of the spectators told a story of its own.
Just like it had been in Lahore a few days earlier, it was a tale of a painful yet an immensely fruitful wait to see some special cricket being played between two fantastic teams, Islamabad United and Peshawar Zalmi, in Karachi, the 'City of Lights'.
And what the jam-packed crowd at the National Stadium saw unfold in front of their eyes did not disappoint them. An Islamabad United team, powered by the raw firepower of the tournament’s highest run-getter Luke Ronchi, and led in part by the collective wisdom of Misbah-ul-Haq, Rumman Raees and JP Duminy at different stages of the tournament, duly picked up another Pakistan Super League (PSL) title to add to the one from the inaugural edition in 2016.
Whilst the manner in which Islamabad finished off the tournament seemed to indicate complete domination of all sides, it would be fair to say that the journey to the final really began with some intelligent picks during the draft stage.
The choice of all-rounders and youngsters such as Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf, Hussain Talat, Amad Butt, Asif Ali, Sahibzada Farhan and Zafar Gohar showed a willingness to trust in youth, which was an important aspect of Islamabad’s ability to take on the very best of opponents in the PSL.
Considering the devastation caused to Islamabad's chances and reputation during the 2017 edition of the PSL, where the ugly spectre of corruption deprived them of the talents of Sharjeel Khan, Khalid Latif and the bowling strength provided by Mohammad Irfan, their rise to the top in PSL 2018 was nothing short of what they deserved.
And when it came to the choice of overseas players, Andre Russell, who had recently become available after serving a doping related ban, was the ideal choice to lead the hard-hitting all-rounder brigade, as was the experience of seasoned campaigners Samit Patel and Duminy. Of course, the inclusion of Ronchi, who probably carried the batting in the line-up all the way, was a masterstroke which the management can take full credit for. Ronchi's selection ultimately caused mayhem to the bowling plans of the opposition teams.
Whilst the more charitable opinions put the leadership of the ageing and clearly unfit veteran Misbah as an important factor for Islamabad’s success, the reality was that he was at the helm of affairs more for continuity purposes rather than any special abilities with the bat.
Raees, who also captained the team in the absence of Misbah during the early stage of the tournament, himself picked up a knee injury in Sharjah and was declared unfit to continue. There was a real danger that the Islamabad campaign could fizzle out especially with the likes of newcomers Multan Sultans looking like favourites at the earlier stages of the tournament.
But fortunately for Islamabad United, the real push and drive for victory predominantly came from the youngsters in the team whose spirit and resolve was an example to all, especially if one takes into consideration that top all-rounder Russell's run in this edition ended prematurely due to injury.
Joining the squad after the conclusion of his England duties, Alex Hales also provided some impetus to Islamabad's effort during their campaign. But it was indeed heartening to see that when he failed to make the trip to Pakistan, a promising youngster in Farhan picked up from where he left off, and gave an excellent account of himself by scoring 44 off only 33 balls in the biggest game of the tournament that was the finale.
But there was even better news for Pakistan and Islamabad in the manner in which the other young players stepped up for their team towards the end of the final game. In this regard, the name Asif Ali will be remembered as the youngster who won many fans with the calm manner in which he took his team to victory with 26 runs scored off just six balls.
Islamabad United thus won the PSL title for the second time after what many described as a lacklustre start to the tournament, but it was really the dramatic Super Over win in their fourth game of the tournament against Lahore Qalandars which seemed to instill a new sense of self-belief in the team.
It also gave them so much confidence that even an extended break between winning the play-off against Karachi Kings in Dubai, to playing the high-octane final in Karachi was no hurdle in producing a winning performance in the end.
United by name and United by performances. A well-rounded group, all bases being covered, strength in depth, the impact of good selections for the squad was as important as was the resolve of the squad to win this tournament, but no one should under-estimate the guidance that an experienced former Pakistan head coach and fast-bowler like Waqar Younis would have provided to his young wards.
The experience of playing under the immensely experienced Waqar’s tutelage and to win a tournament of this magnitude must have done a world of good for the young guns of Islamabad and more importantly, point towards an even brighter future for Pakistan cricket.