Sialkot Stallions finally get stage to strut their stuff
Two of the teams at this year's Champions League would have made their first appearance in at the inaugural edition of the tournament in 2008.
The Titans have had the opportunity to qualify every year since then but only got it right in 2012. The other, the Sialkot Stallions, did not have that same chance. Relations between India and Pakistan soured after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 and Pakistan players and teams found themselves shut out of the competition.
If a representative from Pakistan had been let into the tournament in the previous three editions, that team would have been Sialkot in two of them. They were Pakistan's domestic winners in 2009 and 2011, and 2012 - Lahore Lions took the crown in 2010. And if the Champions League existed before that, Sialkot would have participated in most of those editions too.
So prolific has their form in the shortest format of the game been, that Sialkot have won seven of the nine editions of Pakistan's domestic 20-overs competition. They also hold the world record for the number of consecutive victories by any team in T20 cricket, with 25 wins.
As far as reputations go, Sialkot enter the qualifying stage with one of the biggest and theirs serves as proof that they belong at this level, something their captain Shoiab Malik has never doubted. "Wherever cricket is being played, Pakistan cricketers should go and play there," he said. "We know there are certain rules and regulations, but that is my opinion."
Sialkot, Malik believes, will take their chance to show what they are about. "We really like this format and we have done well in it. This tournament is an opportunity for us."
The two other teams in their group, Auckland and Hampshire admit to knowing very little about the Pakistan champions but the numbers and Malik's strong words should be an indicator of what they are up against.
Part of their prowess could come from the mystery factor. "There is an advantage for us because the other teams haven't seen some of our youngsters who have not played international cricket," Malik said. He mentioned bowlers Umaid Asif (who is "not young though, actually quite old") and Bilawal Bhatti (whose "name may be very difficult for you to pronounce but just look at it on his shirt") as examples.
Pakistan's newest international left-arm spinner Raza Hasan, who Malik said the media "must have noticed at the World T20," is also in the Sialkot squad and big things are expected of him. Malik seems to want bigger things from the more experienced members of the squad though.
He hopes the likes of Imran Nazir, Naved-ul-Hasan and Sarfraz Ahmed can show that although Pakistan, as a place, has been in the international wilderness, their domestic competition is thriving. Importantly, he pointed out that these players have travelled enough and played enough to be more than ready to compete in a tournament like this.
"We have some players who were with the Pakistan team and a lot of our others have been playing in England for the past 10 or 12 years," he said. "They have that awareness of the game and they have played with international cricketers before."
Despite their bravado, Sialkot lost a warm-up match to Yorkshire by 23 runs on arrival. Malik blamed a heavy travelling schedule and poor timing for the defeat. "We arrived in South Africa at around midnight on Saturday evening and played the game the next morning. We were very tired and we are still a little tired. But it's great to be here, it's a great tournament and we are know we are prepared for it."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent