Islamabad United 157 for 4 (Stirling 56, Nazir 34, Mahmood 2-29) beat Quetta Gladiators 156 for 7 (Sarfaraz 54, Ashraf 3-11, Ali 2-23) by six wickets
Islamabad United won the toss, and, yes, Islamabad United won the game. While that continues to be the story of this year's Pakistan Super League, reducing the contest to that dynamic would take away from a spellbinding performance from a side racked by off-field complications, with Covid-related absences meaning the two-time champions could field only two overseas players.
One of them was Paul Stirling, whose knock in the powerplay blew the Quetta Gladiators away before they had a chance to try and defend a below-par 156. Stirling brought up his half-century in just the fifth over of the chase - off just 21 balls - with his side plundering 76 off the powerplay. That left the chasing side with less than a run-a-ball for the remainder of the innings, and despite slowing down, Shadab Khan's side got there with three overs to spare.
The longer sides batting first remain winless, the greater the psychological burden becomes. For the Gladiators, who have yet to win a toss, the mental hurdles are particularly heavy, but losing four wickets in the powerplay is unlikely to put a side in a strong position in any league. Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf both struck in the powerplay, before returning at the death to stifle the scoring and rip through the lower order. The only resistance came in the form of Sarfaraz Ahmed whose 41-ball 54 helped ensure that the Gladiators could get to a total they'd have a flickering hope of defending.
Two overs through the middle saw Ahmed at his best power-hitting ability for years. Against Khan, who looked especially dangerous as he flighted a ball that gripped on the surface, he would manipulate the field to pick up three boundaries that kept the scoreboard ticking, before taking Iftikhar Ahmed to the cleaners the following over. The allrounder was smashed for four successive sixes, all through the offside, with the United missing a trick and playing into Ahmed's strength: right-arm off spin. When pace was introduced, the scoring dried up again, and the Gladiators ended up with a total that looked significantly below par.
Ashraf's bowling form
Ashraf has been in scrutiny of late over his indifferent performances with the ball, even as he has sizzled with the bat, both for the national side and his franchise. But the man who recently said he would consider himself a bowling allrounder "till the day I retire" demonstrated today why he retains such self-belief in that discipline. Relentlessly accurate when he went for the yorkers and judicious in the way he mixed up his length and pace, he prised out Cameron Delport with his first ball, before a short delivery brought the priceless scalp of Azam Khan.
With Ahmed threatening to help the Gladiators post closer to 180, Khan turned once more to Ashraf, who promptly brought the scoring rate down, and even trapped the Gladiators captain with his penultimate delivery. Figures of 4-0-11-3 are tribute enough, but the impact of each wicket demonstrated his enduring value as a bowler for his side.
Mohammad Nawaz hasn't missed a game for Quetta Gladiators in the best part of half-a-decade, and several priceless contributions explain why he's such a nailed-on player for the side. As recently as last week, it was his cameo with the bat that took Quetta to 178 against Lahore Qalandars. But when his side needed a huge contribution with both bat and ball after a poor start on Tuesday, Nawaz struggled to effectively complement his captain through a 63-run sixth wicket partnership, contributing just 18 to it himself. The whole innings was a stop-start, constrained affair; in the final four overs, while he was the senior batsman, only a single boundary was hit. Nawaz himself would finish with 31 off 29.
And it was about to get worse. Unwilling to give Alex Hales and Stirling pace on the ball, he was tasked with opening the bowling. He would catch Stirling in sizzling form, though, being smashed for three boundaries in the first over in which he leaked 17, and the tone for a thumping United victory was set. Two further overs produced 24 more runs against him, and if this was a forgettable day for the Gladiators in general, Nawaz in particular would want to put it out of his mind.
How things stand
United joined Peshawar Zalmi and Qalandars at the top of the points table with just the net run-rate separating the three teams. The Gladiators, meanwhile, remained pointless and winless, having lost all their four matches.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000