LAHORE: Pakistan had a dismal home international cricket season, but over the last five weeks stadiums in four major cities were packed with thousands of spectators to witness a quality brand of modern-day Twenty20 cricket.
Over 25,000 spectators – mostly supporting the home team Lahore Qalandars – saw their team edge out Multan Sultans by just one run in an epic final at Gaddafi Stadium and became the first Pakistan Super League franchise to successfully defend the title in eight editions of the tournament.
The vociferous crowd got behind Pakistan premier fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi-led Lahore which beat Multan Sultans, led by one of world’s top T20 wicketkeeper-batters, Mohammad Rizwan in a last ball finish.
Only hundreds of spectators had turned up during Pakistan’s home international cricket season in stadiums with Pakistan drawing four test matches and losing three beside finishing on the wrong side of the result in five of the eight T20s internationals it hosted.
But fans came out in big numbers at Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Multan for the enthralling PSL games that also featured Peshawar Zalmi, captained for the first time by Pakistan all-format skipper Babar Azam; two-time champion Islamabad United and former title-holders Karachi Kings and Quetta Gladiators.
When the Pakistan Cricket Board conceived the idea of PSL, it’s primary objective was to bring back international cricket which was suspended since 2009 when terrorists attacked a Sri Lanka cricket team bus in Lahore. Gradually foreign teams started touring Pakistan and after hosting the first season of PSL in the United Arab Emirates, the PCB brought back its premier T20 league back in the country.
“The league has now grown bigger and stronger by the year,” PCB Managing Committee’s head Najam Sethi told the AP. “The credit for this goes not just to PCB but also to the passionate cricket-loving Pakistanis who have thronged to the stadiums for the eighth edition (of PSL).”
Sethi, who is also a renowned journalist and had previously served as chairman of the PCB, was reappointed at the helm of the PCB late in December last year in place of Ramiz Raja.
Sethi recognizes Pakistan’s economic problems along with political unrest, but believed the PSL could still turn into a brand in its own right. Sethi claimed at times, during the eighth edition of the tournament, it attracted more eyeballs around the world than the India Premier League.
“At halfway stage of PSL8 I was told by my team that our digital numbers had hit 150 million. The figures in IPL, during the same stage of the tournament, were 130 million,” Sethi said.
The PCB head said he was “shocked” when he was told that only $100,000 had been set aside for the branding of PSL in late December. Sethi increased the money to $1 million after convincing the six franchise owners to bear half the amount.
“I went to Dubai and saw all the drafts (of branding),” Sethi said. “I went through all the technical details, approved it and increased the branding budget to 10 times.”
Sethi is interested to add two more teams, with the approval of six present franchises, in the PSL and make it a bigger league.
“It should be a win-win situation for everyone,” he said. “Next month we will decide how to add two more teams and after 10 years how to tweak the model of PSL.”
It is the first time that the PCB organized PSL at four venues with Multan and Karachi hosting the first leg of the tournament before the league was moved to Rawalpindi and Lahore.
Sethi said it was tough learning for the PCB to organize 34 league games in four cities, but it has given them enough experience if in future, it hosts the event abroad with United States as one of the potential venues.
“We were managing two production teams and many a time the turnaround time was very tight, but their undying spirit and resolve made sure that we never faced any obstacles,” he said, adding that the PCB even sought help from Pakistan Air Force, which provided a C-130 aircraft on a short notice when production equipment had to be transported from Karachi to Lahore during the tournament.
The quality of cricket played during the tournament also impressed Sethi with most of the Pakistani players dominating the tournament. There was a run-fest in Rawalpindi where a T20 world record 515 runs were scored in a game between Multan Sultans and Quetta Gladiators with opening batter Usman Khan scoring the fastest ever PSL century off 36 balls.
Multan also chased over 240 against Peshawar in Rawalpindi, while Jason Roy of England recorded the highest ever individual PSL score of 145 not out while representing Quetta against Peshawar in another over-240 run-chase.
Multan’s two fast bowlers Abbas Afridi and Ihsanullah finished as tournament’s top wicket-takers, claiming 23 and 22 wickets respectively with Afridi also recording the only hat-trick in the tournament.
“We produced pitches that supported batting and bowling and provided perfect setting for evenly contested matches,” Sethi said. “Never before we saw as many as seven centuries being scored in one edition of PSL.”
PSL might still be far behind the cash-rich IPL, but it has made several stars not only for Pakistan but for other countries like Harry Brook of England, Tim David of Australia and revived the international career of South Africa’s Rilee Rossouw.
“PSL has been a great asset globally, but obviously also for Pakistan,” Sethi said.