Peshawar Zalmi have been the most consistent side since the Pakistan Super League began two years ago. They've finished top of the table both seasons, and although a blip in the qualifiers meant they missed out on a place in the final in 2016, they made amends in bombastic style last year. After comfortably beating Karachi to make it through to the final, they dismantled Quetta Gladiators, romping to the title with a 58-run victory. They were fortunate in that the entirety of their foreign contingent, spearheaded by a talismanic Darren Sammy, decided to come to Lahore for the final. Quetta Gladiators' foreign players decided against travelling, and the gulf in quality was palpable.
Peshawar Zalmi have retained the spine of the squad that won them the title last year. The most significant draft activity was the signing of Dwayne Bravo, who missed the PSL last year. Tamim Iqbal, whom they didn't retain, was picked up in the draft, effectively meaning ten players from last year's squad have been retained. The immensely popular Sammy will continue to captain the defending champions. Clearly, Zalmi are sticking to the winning formula.
The highest-profile departure is that of Shahid Afridi, who transferred to Karachi Kings. It was a big blow to Zalmi to many, at least symbolically, as Afridi's Pashtun roots make it inconceivable to see him lining up for any other franchise. Even by pure cricketing standards, Afridi may well be missed; he had a surprisingly productive tournament last year with the bat, although it came alongside returns of two wickets from 28 overs all season with his legspin.
The draft system can often mean players get jostled around franchises from year to year, barely beginning to feel part of one team before being shoved on to the next. As such, Zalmi are the franchise most likely to classify as a unit with the sort of team mentality that can do so much for spirits and motivation within a group. It partially has to do with the bonhomie Sammy's breezy, almost insouciant demeanour creates, putting his charges at ease. But last year's events showed that carefree vibes didn't equate to players not caring; Peshawar's entire foreign contingent travelled to Lahore to play the final in what were uneasy, frankly frightening conditions to play a cricket match. But the sense of unity and a common goal spurred them on, with Dawid Malan - who misses out this year - saying it was Sammy who "had dragged us with him."
In addition, Zalmi's squad boasts a group of players who had outstanding seasons last year. Kamran Akmal, the tournament's highest scorer, will line up for them again, while last year's second-highest wicket-taker, Wahab Riaz (15 wickets at 13.53 with an economy of 6.15), will look to reprise his role as the tournament's best bowler. Hasan Ali, whose stock has risen over the past year more sharply than perhaps anyone else's, will combine with Riaz, Chris Jordan and Bravo in a fearsome fast-bowling attack. The presence of Liam Dawson, Mohammad Asghar and Haris Soahil means Sammy won't have to look far in search of useful spin options either.
It is hard to see too many chinks in Zalmi's armour, but in T20 cricket, even the best-laid plans can go awry very rapidly. For one, Akmal may have topped the run charts last year, but the wicketkeeper-batsman's form - both with gloves and bat - is famously capricious. In the inaugural PSL, for example, he managed just 151 runs at 16.77 with a strike rate of 102.72, a far cry from last season's heroics.
Tamim is only partially available and Shakib was ruled out with a hand injury on the eve of the tournament, two world-class players who can be mighty hard to replace. Mohammad Hafeez is banned from bowling, robbing Zalmi of the only right-arm spin option they otherwise had. In any case, he had a disastrous PSL with the bat in 2017, managing just 153 runs - 77 in one game - and striking at less than run a ball. Moreover, Hasan Ali is in a race against time to be fit for the start of the tournament, with Umaid Asif drafted in as cover.
Key foreign player
Bravo's inclusion will surely send Zalmi fans into a frenzy. Bravo is a cricketer who appeared suited to the T20 format even before it was invented. His myriad bowling variations trouble several batsmen even at the Test level. He was the joint-highest wicket-taker in the recently-concluded Big Bash League, and with 413 wickets, is the most successful T20 bowler ever. While his batting has waned over the years, he, nevertheless, remains a handy option down the order. With his captain Sammy, and Andre Fletcher also in the Zalmi side, there's enough of a Caribbean flavour to make him feel at home, and Bravo in his comfort zone is an irresistible prospect.
Under-the-radar local player
Twenty-three-year-old Khushdil Shah is an unlikely would-be Pakistan star. Hailing from Bannu - hardly a production line of Pakistani cricketers - in the north of Pakistan, Shah has discreetly begun to make waves in the rest of the country too. He was stellar without being spectacular in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy, scoring 386 runs at 25.73, but it was in the Reigonal One Day Cup earlier this season that he really burst into life, with 389 runs at 55.57 and a strike rate around 96. That means Shah goes with high confidence into the PSL - the biggest stage he could possibly hope for to exhibit his budding talent.