Faisalabad's Hollywood journey
The Champions League Twenty20 is an idea that works on paper, but its iterations so far have been unloved and not that profitable, making it the useless younger brother of the IPL. Yet the presence of the Faisalabad team, which will now receive some much-deserved attention, provides the competition with the sort of narrative the IPL can't. The story of how they got here is reminiscent of a typical sports movie.
A digression here. Pakistan has two major domestic T20 competitions. In the first half of the season, we have the Faysal Bank T20, a typical 14-team affair, like many elsewhere in the cricketing world. In the second there is the Faysal Bank Super 8 T20 (no one has yet attempted to abbreviate it), where the best eight teams from the Faysal Bank T20 play each other. This was the tournament that Faisalabad won to make it to the Champions League.
The two-competition calendar ought to be considered too much of a good thing, and would probably have Pakistan's old Test-loving-journos in a tizzy were it not for the fact that it makes complete sense. The second tournament came into being in 2010-11 (which is why Pakistan have had 12 domestic T20 champions in nine years), because of the complete absence of international cricket in a country where the three most popular sports are cricket, complaining and cricket. Furthermore, neither of these competitions takes more than ten days to finish. So, bizarre as it may sound, the PCB got something right.
All good sports movies require an interesting and dominating antagonist; in this case there were three. Antagonist No. 1 was Karachi Dolphins (the better of the two Karachi teams). They are a combination of Real Madrid, because they have half the country's media rooting for them, and Liverpool, because their fans always tell you that this is going to be their year, and it never is. Dolphins have been perennial bridesmaids, having lost the finals in six of the 12 competitions held so far (only Sialkot have more appearances).
Antagonist No. 2 was Lahore Lions (the better of the two Lahore teams, and locally referred to as the Lahore Loins), who had had recent success - including winning the T20 competition in the first half of the season - and the best team on paper. Their top five - Ahmed Shehzad, Nasir Jamshed, Mohammad Hafeez, Kamran and Umar Akmal - are pretty much the top order of the national team. You could even argue that this wasn't their best possible batting line-up since the arrival of Hafeez led to two better players, Mohammad Yousuf and Abdul Razzaq, withdrawing from playing for Lions. Rest assured, a full-strength Lions team (with that batting line-up and a pair of teenage left-arm quicks) would have been Pakistan's best option for any significant performance in the Champions League.
Antagonist No. 3 was the Great Empire itself, Sialkot Stallions. Few, if any, teams have dominated their country quite like Stallions. They had won seven of 11 competitions going into this event, including a run in the late noughties where they won five years in a row, going unbeaten for 25 matches. Their success was based around the batting of Shoaib Malik and Imran Nazir, and more recently Haris Sohail - players who excel on Pakistani pitches, especially when the bowling is below international standard. Sialkot also understood the golden rule of T20 cricket: that it is better to have a quality bowling attack than a quality batting line-up, and their colours had been donned by the likes of Rana Naved, Mohammad Asif, Abdur Rehman and Raza Hasan.
Meanwhile our protagonists, Faisalabad Wolves, had once been mighty, having won the first edition of the domestic T20 in 2004-05, and followed that with a win in the predecessor to the Champions League - the International 20:20 Club Championship, held in England in 2005, featuring the best two teams in England and the champions of Sri Lanka, South Africa and Pakistan. Nobody remembers it because this was in the days before India cared about T20.
Between then and this season's domestic championship, Faisalabad didn't win a trophy. Prior to the start of this season they lost their third-best player, Hafeez, and for this competition (until the final) they didn't have the services of their best player, Saeed Ajmal. Their second-best player now is Khurram Shehzad, a poor man's Hafeez (which really is saying something; except that Shehzad realises he isn't an opener). Their fast bowling trio (Sami Niazi, Asad Ali and Ehsan Adil) is more English than Pakistani - no blood, sweat and tears for them. Their captain, unsurprisingly, is Misbah-ul-Haq, often characterised as the antithesis of inspiration, and they have ten role players who had till then won a combined total of less than 20 international caps. In the movie version, Misbah will probably be played by Kevin Costner or Nicolas Cage, reprising the role of a man devoid of human emotions such as love or happiness. But like in all fairy tales, this ragtag group gelled under the old has-been to achieve the improbable.
In the group stage they took on the highly fancied Dolphins, who set them a target of 158 and had them at 21 for 2 in the fifth over. Misbah responded with a match-winning 85 off 47 balls and Faisalabad qualified for the semi-finals. A day later, Wolves lost after Misbah did the most Misbah thing ever: he top-scored before getting run out off the last ball with the scores tied. Faisalabad lost the Super Over, so they had to next play the winner of the other group, Lahore Lions.
Misbah failed against Lahore, so Faisalabad could only put up 125. Lions were comfortably positioned at 70 for 1 in the ninth over when they had an almighty collapse in front of a surprisingly non-partisan crowd (the whole tournament was held at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore).
Misbah's boys went about exploiting Lahore's weaknesses, like in the 11th over when Imran Khalid bowled his left-arm spin to Umar Akmal and Misbah brought midwicket up, inviting Akmal to go across the line and hit over the top. You would think that with the required rate under five an over, Akmal wouldn't take the bait, but after three dot balls, he charged down the wicket and chipped over midwicket for a boundary. Next ball he charged again and was stumped. Lahore went from requiring 45 off ten overs with eight wickets in hand to losing the match.
Misbah looked more animated during that victory than he has ever seemed in Pakistan colours. In fact, during the whole tournament Misbah was a more imaginative and aggressive captain than he ever is for Pakistan - make of that what you will.
In the final, Faisalabad, of course, took on Shoaib Malik's Sialkot Stallions. This time Misbah played second fiddle to Asif Ali and Faisalabad put up 158. True to a Hollywood climax, a half-fit superstar, Ajmal, came to help his team over the final hurdle. But unlike in a movie, here it turned out that he wasn't needed. Sialkot never came close. The sellout crowd overwhelmingly supported Misbah and Faisalabad, although that might have to do with them rooting against Malik rather than for Misbah. Misbah ended the tournament as the leading run-getter and six-hitter.
So as you watch Faisalabad in the Champions League T20, marvel at how they came to be here.
Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here