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How the PSL helped bring about England's return to Pakistan

It is 17 years since England's last tour, but many of the squad have already had a taste

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
On the morning of March 4, 2017, Dawid Malan and Chris Jordan had a decision to make. They sat in their rooms in a Dubai hotel texting family, friends and each other to work out whether or not they should travel to Lahore for the final of the second season of the Pakistan Super League.
Eventually, they decided they would take the leap of faith, putting their trust in the PCB's extensive security protocols and joining the second tranche of international players to travel to Pakistan since the attacks on Sri Lanka's team bus in 2009. The game took place without a hitch and their side, Peshawar Zalmi, cruised to victory in front of over 22,000 fans.
"It was a fantastic occasion," Malan recalled in Karachi on Saturday. "I don't think any of us thought that us coming over would have played such a big part in cricket coming back to Pakistan. It's a cricket-loving nation who were starved of their star players for a long time… to play a small part in that has been very special."
The trip barely lasted 24 hours as the PSL took a tentative first step towards a return home after launching in the UAE the year before, but Malan and Jordan's involvement was hugely significant: they were the first England cricketers to play professionally in Pakistan since the 2005 tour and paved the way for others to follow.
The PSL is a popular product in its own right, widely regarded as the second-best short-form league in the world behind the IPL, but has also acted as a diplomatic vehicle to bring leading players - from England and elsewhere - back to Pakistan. As a result, boards can no longer hide behind claims that their players are unwilling to travel,
"It did feel like a big push to get those international players involved," Mickey Arthur, who coached Karachi Kings in the PSL's first four seasons, recalled. "We needed individuals to come to Pakistan to help break the barriers down and the PSL was instrumental in that. It certainly helped in the perception of going to Pakistan."
The number of English players involved has grown year on year, to the extent that as many as 23 made at least one appearance in the 2022 edition. Exactly half of England's 20-man squad for the T20I series that starts on Tuesday have played in Pakistan before; those that hadn't spoke to their team-mates before the team's departure to calm any nerves.
"We've heard a lot from the PSL boys," Sam Curran said. "I spoke to most of them to ask what to expect." Jos Buttler said that the scale of English involvement in the PSL had "allayed some concerns" around the security situation: "They shared their positive experiences from being here - more than anything, how much the public here love their cricket."
English involvement in the PSL has not been limited to players. James Foster and Peter Moores have coached teams in it; David Gower and Nick Knight have commentated; Richard Illingworth and Michael Gough have umpired. Reg Dickason, the ECB's security director, has also been employed as a consultant by the PCB.
"In many ways, the PSL has been a vehicle for the full return of international cricket to Pakistan," Imran Ahmad Khan, who led player recruitment for the PSL from 2017 to 2021, said. "Just in terms of slowly changing perceptions across the cricketing world around being in Pakistan.
"So many different international stakeholders get involved in the PSL's ecosystem: players, coaches, support staff, production crew, commentators. They've all been able to experience Pakistan through the PSL and they've gone on to share that experience with others in their respective countries."
The benefits have been mutual: Pakistan has welcomed English players with open arms while the players themselves have had the opportunity to test themselves in unfamiliar conditions against high-quality players.
"The PSL was a stepping stone for me," Malan said. "It's been fantastic for me: it taught me what I needed if I wanted to go one step further." Countless others have benefited from the platform that the tournament has provided.
Relations between the two teams are better than ever. Saturday night's training session - the first of the tour to feature both sides - saw a number of players catch up with one another: Moeen Ali and Shan Masood, Liam Dawson and Asif Ali, Phil Salt and Shadab Khan. The bad blood that has characterised some previous tours will prove difficult to sniff out.
And so, despite their 17-year absence, England are not going into this series blind. They are anticipating skiddy pitches in Karachi but sticky, bouncier ones in Lahore. "Having that experience of playing here before is a big thing," Alex Hales, who has played more PSL games in Pakistan than any other Englishman, said.
"England touring Pakistan hasn't happened in a vacuum," Khan said. "It's been a result of stakeholders gaining that experience through the PSL and being able to build that confidence around playing Pakistan." Whatever the result in Tuesday night's series opener, the fact it is taking place at all is a victory for soft power.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98