Quetta Gladiators was the model of a well-run franchise, perhaps not only in Pakistan, but T20 franchise cricket across the world. They were snapped up for the most competitive price of all six PSL franchises, but the relative modesty of the side's value never dimmed its appetite for consistent success. For the first four seasons, the Gladiators were perhaps the most predictably successful side in the league, winning the title in 2019 and only once failing to reach the final.
From those heady heights, Sarfaraz Ahmed's side - and it has always been Sarfaraz Ahmed's side - has suffered something of a drastic decline. The 2020 season was the first that ended in elimination at the group stage, with the Gladiators finishing fifth on net run rate. Their overall impeccable record might have suggested it was an aberration, but the trend was turbo-charged this year, with the Gladiators, rock bottom with seven losses in nine, becoming the first side to be dumped out of contention.
The game that knocked them out was especially ignominious, with the Multan Sultans inflicting upon them the heaviest defeat in PSL history. The Gladiators were shot out for 73, the second-lowest score in the league. But the spectacular nature of their nadir shouldn't detract from the fact that the Gladiators have been well short of the mark all season, both in the first leg in Karachi, and now that the tournament has moved to Abu Dhabi. Here's a look at a few of the things that went wrong for a one-time PSL giant.
Failure to replace elite batters
There are only so many stars a side can lose without the shine coming off them, and the Gladiators have lost star batters by the shedload over the past few seasons. One of the most reliable strategies for success in the PSL is also one of the more straightforward ones: select world-class overseas batters, stick them at the top of the order and watch the runs and boundaries tumble in. For the first three seasons, the Gladiators could boast perhaps the biggest star of all in Kevin Pietersen, joined a year later by PSL royalty Rilee Rossouw, before Shane Watson and Jason Roy linked up with them in 2018. Add to that roster Ahmed Shehzad, who, in the initial years of the PSL, still harboured hopes of joining the ranks of those three in T20 celebrity status, and had the numbers to back it up. Only Watson and Pietersen hit more sixes for the franchise, while no one betters Shehzad's nine half-centuries.
By 2020, though, the Gladiators had lost all of them. The decision to let Rossouw go in 2019, especially as he continues to thrive for the Sultans, has aged especially badly, and the inability to acquire batters of the calibre they possessed in those early years has begun to take its toll. This year, seven different men have opened the batting for them, and Jake Weatherald, Usman Khan and Saim Ayub - their most regular openers - don't really come close to matching the explosiveness of the players they lost. The Gladiators have been allowed to decay, and now the rust is showing.
One-dimensional fast bowling attack
It never hurts to have an express pace bowler in a side, whatever the format, but could it hurt if you cram in as many as three on subcontinental pitches? The Gladiators had Dale Steyn, Mohammad Hasnain and Naseem Shah on their roster, but all have ended up proving either prohibitively expensive or ineffectual for the best part of the tournament. Steyn isn't quite the phenomenon he has been for so long around the world, and when Wahab Riaz and Sherfane Rutherford smashed him for 21 in a tight penultimate over in a crucial early game, the writing seemed to be on the wall. It was a game that captured effectively the Gladiators' inability to keep the runs down against their fast bowling, with Hasnain, Steyn and Shinwari conceding a combined 133 in 11.3 overs.
Hasnain, the ace fast bowler, has an economy rate of 8.89 this season. Shah has gone wicketless in the three matches he played, last conceding 19 in an opening over that set the scene for a crushing Islamabad United win. The loss of Ben Cutting, a player who balanced that pace attack with more nuance, guile and experience, hasn't helped either.
Sarfaraz Ahmed's long-standing captaincy
Ahmed's influence over Pakistani cricket over the past decade or so is hard to overstate, and in a lot of ways he is Mr Quetta Gladiators, so long term is his service to that franchise. The Gladiators are the only team to retain their captain from the first season, and it was easy to see why when Ahmed led them from one successful campaign to another. His contributions with the bat over the years have anchored the Gladiators through several sticky spots, combining regularly with Rossouw over the years, especially in tight chases.
But it's also hard to miss that Ahmed's stock has fallen over the past two years. His previous two campaigns with the side have come after he was sacked from the Pakistan captaincy and removed from the side altogether. In that same period, his performances with the Gladiators have remained steady, but with the league seeing high-scoring games with greater frequency since it moved to Pakistan, Ahmed's anchoring role doesn't quite hold the value it used to.
In addition, several flustered exchanges with his own bowlers this season appear to have painted the picture of a captain not quite in harmony with the rest of the squad. A captain who demands the highest standards with the relentlessness that Ahmed does will invariably exact an emotional debt from his side. At some point, that debt has to be repaid, and the Gladiators' days of reckoning appear to have come.
It would be harsh to allocate any blame to Ahmed for not calling correctly, but the inflated importance of bowling first in Karachi meant losing all their tosses in the first leg didn't help the Gladiators' cause. They were forced to bat first in each of the five games they played there, losing their first four and finding themselves on the verge of elimination before the league was halted anyway. They were the only side to actually defend a total in Karachi this year, keeping the Sultans at bay in their fifth game. But as Wednesday's game, where they won the toss and chased against the same opposition illustrates, the Gladiators' problems run deeper than the landing of a coin.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000