KARACHI: Just imagine where were Islamabad United during the last season of HBL Pakistan Super League? And the answer is nowhere at all. A bottom-placed finish in the group stage epitomised how the two-time former champions had fallen on hard times.
The redemption for the title winners in 2016 and 2018 has been swift with a fair degree of clarity in their approach as they take on Multan Sultans in the Qualifier on Monday evening before Peshawar Zalmi face holders Karachi Kings in Eliminator 1 the same night to decide who will progress to meet losers of the Qualifier in Tuesday’s Eliminator 2, the winners of which earning the ticket to the final on Thursday against the Qualifier victors.
But it took them just 15 months to rise from those dark days of 2020 to become serious contenders for the title in the sixth edition of the league which was disrupted by coronavirus (Covid-19) and subsequently suspended in early March after only 14 fixtures were played in Karachi.
Upon resumption at Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Cricket Stadium on June 9, Islamabad have definitely emerged as the most feared side for all the opponents, winning five of their six remaining six league-round fixtures to top the standings with a record-breaking victories — one of them being an astonishing comeback when Lahore Qalandars had reduced them to 20-5 batting first.
Holders Karachi clash with Peshawar in Eliminator 1
With a formidable line-up at Shadab Khan’s disposal, Islamabad have been relentless performers during the second leg, and the obvious highlights being their avalanche of runs — a PSL record total of 247-2 — against Peshawar Zalmi following a destructive demolition act two days earlier when Colin Munro battered the clueless Quetta Gladiators bowling to spank 90 from only 36 balls in a 10-wicket carnage, which was completed with 60 deliveries to spare after Quetta mustered 133 all out.
Munro and the Islamabad-born Usman Khawaja are the driving force with the willow for Islamabad. Khawaja, who like Munro bats left-handed, added a unique landmark to his CV when the discarded Australian batsman became the first captain in the PSL to make a century — a 56-ball 105 not out against Peshawar — while standing in for the rested Shadab in that game last Thursday.
While there are no apparent chinks in Islamabad’s armoury going towards the business end of the tournament, they are wary of Multan Sultans’ top-order batting, featuring Shan Masood, Mohammad Rizwan and Sohaib Maqsood and a resourceful bowling which features the livewire pace bowler Shahnawaz Dhani — leading wicket-taker this year with 20 victims — and the 42-year-old Imran Tahir, the Lahore-born leggie who earned international fame with South Africa.
Rizwan has been an inspiring leader for Multan right through the campaign, which seemed doomed for them when they languished in fifth place during the Karachi leg with a solitary success in five matches. But in Abu Dhabi, they have reversed those results with great resilience and commitment.
Multan, who were then captained by Shan Masood, finished top of the table in PSL 5 but were cruelly denied a tilt at the elusive crown when Karachi won in Super Over after the Qualifier ended a tie before losing to Lahore in Eliminator 2 at the National Stadium back in November.
Meanwhile, both Karachi and Peshawar have blown hot and cold thus far in the humidity of Abu Dhabi after occupying the top two spots during the Karachi leg, and then going through to playoffs on permutation of results from other fixtures.
While Peshawar, who won the title in 2017, eventually clinch third spot due to their superior net run-rate, Karachi had to dig deep to go through at the expensive of Lahore — who they had defeated in the PSL 5 final — only after sealing a 14-run win over Quetta in Saturday’s penultimate fixture of the preliminary stage.
Peshawar have major problems in the bowling than batting after England seamer Sajid Mahmood — who was the leading wicket-taker in Karachi with 12 scalps — became unavailable due to his county commitments since most of their bowlers have an economy above eight runs an over. And although they put up a spirited batting effort against Islamabad by posting 232-6 and losing that game — yielding a record aggregate of 479 — by just 15 runs, both Kamran Akmal and Shoaib Malik, their most experienced players, have lacked consistency by not producing big scores.
Wahab Riaz has led Peshawar well but despite taking 14 wickets, the left-armer has been leaking runs at critical junctures, while there is dearth of decent spinning options since their bowling attack heavily revolves around pace and seam.
Babar Azam is the linchpin for Karachi, and if they hope to become the first side to retain the title, the ace batsman — who leads the batting chart with 501 runs, the most by anyone in a single edition— has to shoulder more responsibility in this do-or-die clash, keeping in mind the reigning champions have been found wanting on several occasions.
Karachi’s bowling too has come in for strict scrutiny with their main weapon Mohammad Amir grabbing just four wickets from 10 matches, while Imad Wasim has a tendency of being a rather reluctant captain, which does not augur well for his own confidence, and that of his team.