Last week, Pakistan crowned its latest T20 champions after Lahore Lions beat Faisalabad Wolves in a thrilling, low-scoring final that went to the final ball. In the aftermath of the Position Paper debacle and then another PCB coup, the tournament provided a welcome diversion for Pakistani fans. More importantly, it also provided a rare chance for cricket fans to see their heroes in the flesh, and the raucous Rawalpindi atmosphere was heart-warming to see. As we attended the final stages, it was clear that along with the usual concerns, there was plenty of hope on offer, and perhaps even a blueprint for the future direction Pakistani cricket should take
This tournament provided confirmation of the fact that Pakistani domestic T20 cricket has finally gone past the age of the Sialkot Stallions, perhaps the most consistent T20 side the world has ever seen. From March 2006 to April 2012 Sialkot Stallions won seven of the nine domestic T20 tournaments held (for brief details on the slightly convoluted Pakistani T20 calendar, please read this), which included a 25-match unbeaten run - a feat unlikely to be repeated, considering the unpredictability of the shortest format. Since then, though, two teams have leapfrogged Stallions - and the contrast that they provide has the makings of a proper rivalry.
In one corner stand the star-studded and young Lahore Lions team, able to cherry-pick the best talent from the city that has produced the most for Pakistan in recent years. They have won three titles in the last four years, with Nasir Jamshed, Ahmed Shehzad, Umar Akmal, Wahab Riaz and Aizaz Cheema ever-present in the triumphs; Mohammad Hafeez, Mohammad Yousuf, Abdul Razzaq and Kamran Akmal have each been in at least one of the winning teams.
In the other corner stand Faisalabad Wolves - still reliant on the ageing core that made them the team to beat a decade ago. They bring with them the best one-two punch in Pakistan (Saeed Ajmal and Misbah-ul-Haq) and their renaissance has come about thanks in part to the infusion of young blood in the form of Ehsan Adil, Mohammad Talha and Ali Waqas, who combine with several over-30 journeymen to form the most complete team in the country.
The last three tournaments have seen Lahore beat Faisalabad in the finals twice, while Faisalabad's sole victory came after defeating Lahore in the semi-finals. It is a contrast of styles that precisely captures Pakistan cricket's current dichotomy - the brash recklessness of Lahore against the measured overachieving of Faisalabad - and long may it continue.
The most significant aspect for the casual fan in the tournament was the lack of breakout fast bowlers in the tournament - the sort who make Pakistanis go weak in the knees. Thus the tournament, judging by the measure held most dearly by local fans, was a failure. Except, there are caveats.
Firstly, it has only been one tournament since Usman Khan Shinwari bowled a blinding spell in the final and was catapulted to the national side - so it's not like this has been a drought. Secondly, and far more importantly, the best young pacers in Pakistan were in the UAE playing for the national under-19 side. Finally, the end-of-season pitches were ideal for slower bowlers, as evidenced by the statistics. The four best spinners in Pakistan - Saeed Ajmal, Abdur Rehman, Raza Hasan and Zulfiqar Babar - all finished the tournament with economy rates under 6. In fact, the final became an ode to the aura of Ajmal, who conceded just 11 runs in four overs, with five of those coming off a leg-side wide. Lahore's refusal to attack Ajmal, even when the asking rate was climbing, was a greater testament than any proclamation to the stature that Ajmal has in Pakistan right now.
Far more worrying than the bowling is the state of the batting, as is the norm in Pakistan. Seven of the eight highest scorers (including the top five) were players who have already played for Pakistan - and many of these are unloved due to their failure to translate domestic dominance to the international stage. Furthermore, the fact that the squad for the World Twenty20 was selected before the tournament concluded meant that even if someone new performed well, it would have taken a force majeure event for him to be included. Not that it would have mattered - after all, Younis Khan was the outstanding batsman in the tournament by far, and still would not have been selected for the World Twenty20. Instead his success in one format means that he's more likely to be selected for another format, if the recent inclusion of Kamran Akmal (and the record of Pakistani selectors) is anything to go by.
With cricket so often viewed through the lens of identity and politics in Pakistan, this tournament was heavy on providing symbolic victories. The expansion to 17 teams brought three new entrants, and all of these were from parts of the country with some of the worst social-development indices.
The tournament's greenest yet most eager side was the one representing FATA (Federally Administrated Tribal Areas) an area that has long been an epicentre of war and violence. Led by the barrel-chested, improbably agile Riaz Afridi, the FATA Cheetahs failed to win any matches but provided a lot of fight. Going one step better were Dera Murad Jamali Ibexes from the impoverished, insurgency-wracked province of Balochistan. Ibexes pulled off one of the tournament's shocks by beating eventual semi-finalists Abbottabad in a rain-shortened game, and could well have beaten bottom-placed Bahawalpur if the match hadn't been called off.
But the best of lot were Larkana Bulls from oft-ignored interior Sindh. They won both their local derbies by beating the province's bigger, newer cities of Karachi and Hyderabad and so qualified for the quarter-finals. There they gave Faisalabad an almighty scare by having them down to 50 for 4 (with even Misbah dismissed) before restricting them to 121. It proved to be one bridge too far, as Larkana folded for 88, with Ajmal and Asad Ali combining for figures of 6.5-1-17-6. Of course, most of the players in each of these sides were rejects from other squads, and it's too early to view their success as indigenous to their areas. But in terms of highlighting cricket's growing diversity as well as its ability to provide hope, the new teams were a rousing success.
Despite the musical chairs being played with the position of the PCB chairman, the board has consistently, throughout its whirlwind of changes, stated its desire to bring international cricket back to Pakistan. This has been pursued through trying to arrange tours as well as hoping to develop an IPL-style Pakistan Super League (PSL) which would conceivably attract top international stars. Yet with the country's militancy concerns nowhere near ending, it might be time for the PCB to start looking inwards instead. The rousing success of the current tournament in Rawalpindi and Islamabad drove home the need to play matches outside of Karachi and Lahore, which have both hosted rather lacklustre tournaments of late. (In fact, seeing as how only one of the four teams from these two cities made to the quarter-finals, it's high time to give both cities just one team each.)
As we sat in the stands watching an electric, exceedingly diverse crowd lapping up the cricket, the game's extraordinary potential became manifestly obvious. Developing a two-tier tournament (to even out the quality in the 17 sides at present) with home-and-away matches is perhaps not feasible just yet, but it is surely the best way forward. With two national sports channels that have little to show and many proud stadiums that no one goes to, the infrastructure is already in place. Having one of the world's largest populations captive to one sport, and particularly fond of attending region-based T20 cricket, means that the interest is undeniable. It only needs the PCB to now stop trying to chase mirages and simply put two and two together.