ISLAMABAD: Shaheen Shah Afridi will stage a comeback to competitive cricket after three months out with a freak knee injury to lead defending champions Lahore Qalandars in the Pakistan Super League, beginning from Monday.
Afridi led Lahore to its maiden PSL title last year in Pakistan’s premier domestic Twenty20 tournament that has once again attracted several foreign T20 specialists in a six-team event also featuring two-time champions Islamabad United and past winners Multan Sultans, Karachi Kings, Quetta Gladiators and Peshawar Zalmi.
Afridi, the lanky left-arm fast bowler, has been Pakistan’s bowling mainstay for the last five years since making his international debut in 2018. But a knee injury during the final of the T20 World Cup against England saw him undergo a long strenuous rehabilitation program before finally getting ready for the PSL.
“There were times when I wanted to give up,” Afridi said. “I was working on only one muscle and it was not improving. Often during the rehabilitation sessions, I used to say to myself ‘this is enough, I cannot do this anymore.’”
Afridi used to watch his bowling videos on YouTube to keep himself motivated and ‘push a little more’ but was frustrated to miss international cricket because of injury.
In Afridi’s absence England whitewashed Pakistan 3-0 in the test series during its historic comeback tour to Pakistan last December, while New Zealand twice came close to beating Pakistan in the drawn two-test series.
Afridi, who has a tendency of picking up wickets in the batting powerplay, has taken 70 wickets since making his PSL debut during the third edition of the tournament in 2018. He is third behind his countrymen Wahab Riaz (103), who is the only bowler in the PSL history with over 100 wickets, and Hasan Ali (81).
“PSL is one of the best leagues in the world and the quality of cricket tests you as a bowler,” Afridi said. “I am very excited to be making my comeback here … I am ticking both the bowling workload and fitness requirement boxes.”
Lahore might rue the absence of hard-hitting England batter Harry Brook, who will be on national duty while star leg-spinner Rashid Khan will also miss the first three games due to his commitment with the Afghanistan national team.
However, Lahore has drafted in Englishman Sam Billings and West Indian Shai Hoe to bolster its batting line-up which has the experience of Fakhar Zaman upfront.
The combination of Afridi and Haris Rauf forms the best pace bowling pair in the PSL with the latter having the capability to tie down batters in the latter half of the innings with his pace and impeccable line and length.
Pakistan all-format skipper Babar Azam, who won the ICC’s ODI cricketer of the year award for the second successive year, had a forgettable last year in the PSL when his team Karachi Kings could win only one of the 10 league games.
This year Babar will be leading Peshawar Zalmi after he was traded to Karachi while T20 veteran Shoaib Malik and young middle-order batter Haider Ali were traded from Peshawar to Karachi.
Karachi has the experience of Mohammad Amir in its bowling ranks and has also drafted Australian wicketkeeper Matthew Wade and fast bowler Andrew Tye. Although Englishman James Vince might not be available for the entire tournament, left-handed opener Sharjeel Khan will need to shoulder more of the burden of scoring in the absence of Babar.
Sri Lanka’s Bhanuka Rajapaksa has bolstered Peshawar’s middle-order with young wicketkeeper-batter Mohammad Haris and West Indian duo of Rovman Powell and Sherfane Rutherford also among their ranks.
Islamabad, winners of the first two of the three editions of the tournament, is a team which believes in match-ups and relies heavily on data to find a winning edge. Led by Shadab Khan, Islamabad has power-hitters in Paul Stirling and Asif Ali with young Azam Khan also making good progress in the T20 format after hitting a century in the recent Caribbean Premier League.
Hasan and Faheem Ashraf are its experienced fast bowlers with Shadab tying down the batters with his legbreak bowling in the middle overs.
Multan got beaten in the final last year and will open the PSL at home against Lahore on Monday.
South African pair of Rilee Rossouw and David Miller, Shan Masood and skipper Mohammad Rizwan carry enough experience in the batting lineup, but its bowling resources look thin this year with Shahnawaz Dahani and tall leg-spinner Usama Mir likely to carry the bowling burden.
It has beefed up the team in the replacement draft by drafting in globe-trotter T20 specialist Kieron Pollard of the West Indies.
Veteran Sarfaraz Ahmed will be leading Quetta Gladiators for the eighth successive season after failing to qualify for the final in the last three editions since it won the tournament in 2019.
Sarfaraz is expected to bat higher in the order and has got a red-hot Iftikhar Ahmed also in the ranks. Iftikhar hit six sixes in an over against Peshawar Zalmi’s Riaz during an exhibition PSL match last week in Quetta and also made his mark in this season’s Bangladesh Premier League.
Karachi and Multan will host the first leg of the tournament before Rawalpindi and Lahore stage the second leg. Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore will host the playoffs and the final on March 19.