Babar Azam 85* in vain as Rilee Rossouw, Khushdil Shah lead Multan Sultans to 12-run win
Needing to win nearly every game for play-off contention, Imran Tahir also plays starring role
Multan Sultans 176 for 5 (Shah 44*, Rossouw 44, Perera 2-12) beat Karachi Kings 164 for 6 (Azam 85*, Walton 35, Imran 3-28) by 12 runs
Needing to win almost every game to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Multan Sultans began their UAE leg with a 12-run win over the second-placed Karachi Kings. On a slow surface, Rilee Rossouw and Khushdil Shah made a pair of match-turning 40s to prop up the Sultans after a brief stutter that led to them finishing with 176 for 5, at least 30 fewer than they looked like getting at the halfway mark. But the Kings never got going in their reply. Not even Babar Azam's presence until the final over of the chase made a difference to the end result. He made 85*, an innings that never really got out of second gear until he got to a 45-ball half-century in the 14th over. Then, even a sensational acceleration towards the end was not enough to get them over the line. The Maqsoods make an early splash
Walking in to bat in the very first over, Sohaib Maqsood didn't take long to get sighters as he went after Imad Wasim. With the knowledge that the ball wasn't going to turn or even skid through on a slow deck, he used his height and muscle to keep backing away to pepper the off-side boundaries in a sequence of 4,4,6,4 in Wasim's second over, the third of the innings, to give the Sultans a power boost.
Waqas Maqsood, the left-arm medium pacer, wasn't spared either as Sohaib slapped the first delivery he faced off him to the point boundary. But Waqas would have his man four balls later as Sohaib chopped on trying to run one down to third man. At that point, the Sultans were 40 for 2 in four overs. Rizwan and Rossouw rev up
Mohammad Amir's search for swing was unsuccessful, which meant easy pickings for both Mohammad Rizwan and Rossouw. Off the third ball he faced off Amir, Rizwan nonchalantly flicked him over fine leg to get going. And when Amir went shorter, Rossouw backed away to muscle a pull as if he was swatting a mid-120s bowler. This was some kind of a message that the Sultans were going to counter-punch. The pair raised their half-century stand off just 28 deliveries as the Sultans were well-perched at 107 for 2 in ten overs.
Perera applies the brakes, Shah the finishing touches
Then came the brakes. The Sultans didn't score a boundary for 38 deliveries - from the middle of the tenth over till the start of the 16th - and lost both set batsmen in Rizwan and Rossouw in the space of three deliveries. Thisara Perera dictated terms, as he stuck to a simple wicket-to-wicket approach with excellent variations in pace. Perera would bowl just three overs, his 2 for 12 going a long way in restricting the Sultans in the middle. Having lost 4 for 21 going into the death overs, the Sultans found a saviour in Shah. Perhaps realising the need to bat till the end, he delayed his slog before suddenly coming alive by clouting Amir for two fours and a six in a final over that went for 19. Shah's contribution by then was a neat unbeaten 32-ball 44.
Azam left high and dry, as Tahir leaves imprint
The Kings had an early setback when Sharjeel Khan was run out backing up too far at the non-striker's end in the fourth over. Thereafter, Martin Guptill did little to enhance his reputation in Asia, totally foxed by a Tahir googly for a painstaking 16-ball 11 in the tenth over, by which time the asking rate had spiralled to 11.50. Only Azam stood in the way of victory for the Sultans.
He found an ally in Chadwick Walton as the pair offset the mounting asking rate with some cheeky strokes by looking to use the pace rather than muscle the ball big. With 72 needed off 29 deliveries, Tahir was denied a third wicket when Rizwan missed a stumping to reprieve him on 61. Azam immediately put the pressure back by shellacking the second ball he faced after that for a six.
Going into the final three overs, the Kings continued to mount a final assault, eventually bringing it down to 36 off the last two. But you got the sense they were one big shot or a run out away from losing the game, which is what eventually happened. Azam was stranded in the end on 85, perhaps wondering if he'd just miscalculated a bit.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo