Barely three months after Imad Wasim struck a boundary to win the Karachi Kings their inaugural PSL title, it all begins again. Everyone in Pakistan cricket will hope this will be a continuous season, uninterrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which saw last year's edition split in two parts. For the first time in nearly a year, there will be crowds present at the venues, up to 20% capacity. After a draft that very much had the star quality many feared would be absent because of the pandemic, the lucky few who are at the venues should be in for a fascinating few weeks of T20 franchise cricket.
Here's Part 1 of our two-part team-by-team preview of the tournament.
Team overview: The Covid-19-enforced hiatus didn't appear to do the Sultans much good last year. After a group stage, where Shan Masood's side swept everything before them on the way to topping the table comfortably, the wheels came off in the playoffs eight months later. They failed to beat either the Karachi Kings and the Lahore Qalandars in that stage of the tournament, which dumped them from the tournament before the final.
But that doesn't mean the side from South Punjab are any less of a threat this time around. The acquisition of Mohammad Rizwan - also appointed their new captain - appears an especially precious bit of business, with the wicketkeeper-batsman among the best T20 assets in Pakistan currently. Moreover, the retention of a senior core that has delivered year-on-year - Rilee Rossouw, Sohail Tanvir, Imran Tahir and Shahid Afridi - makes the side prime candidates to dominate the group stages once more. That can be achieved if they continue to prioritise analytics-based decision making, which they did publicly last year with the hiring of Andy Flower and Nathan Leamon.
But the Sultans remain the only side not to have reached a PSL final yet, and having put in the hard work that looked like it was paying dividends last year, they will be keen to see it rewarded over the next five weeks of what should hopefully be an unbroken sixth PSL edition.
- A number of their players are better T20 cricketers than they were this time last year, with Rizwan and legspinner Usman Qadir good examples of this.
- Their legspin department is the strongest among all franchises, with three high-quality leggies among their ranks: Tahir, Afridi and Qadir.
- With Khushdil Shah's loss of form, there is a lot of pressure on Chris Lynn to follow up his BBL heroics with a strong run in the PSL as well. There is also a lack of power-hitters in the side, especially with the departure of Zeeshan Ashraf.
- No fast-bowling star attraction. Tanvir, Imran Khan and Sohail Khan are more than capable of doing a stellar job, but on quicker pitches, the loss of Mohammad Ilyas in the draft might be felt.
Squad: Mohammad Rizwan (capt), Shahid Afridi, Imran Tahir, James Vince, Khushdil Shah, Rilee Rossouw, Shan Masood, Sohail Tanvir, Usman Qadir, Chris Lynn, Sohail Khan, Carlos Brathwaite, Sohaib Maqsood, Sohaib Ullah, Adam Lyth, Shahnawaz Dhani, Muhammad Umar, Imran Khan Sr
Team overview: The side that won the inaugural title in 2016 and became the first team to win the trophy twice when they triumphed in 2018, the United were for the longest time associated with success in a way other sides aspired to. The pioneering approach to data and the way the franchise used analytics was, in the conservative world of Pakistani T20 thinking, little short of revolutionary. It was also a philosophy and model that others - most notably the Sultans - have attempted to replicate. Add to that the fact this side has a core group of young Pakistani players who went on to become mainstays in the national side, as the United were the closest to a blue chip team the PSL could boast of.
A lot of that invincibility was lost amid the disastrous campaign of 2020, where they became the first side other than the Qalandars to finish bottom of the pile. Shadab Khan's side managed just three wins from ten in a campaign where rain played havoc with several of their fixtures. A solid draft, where the acquisition of Hasan Ali - whose star has since only risen - was the most exciting, suggests they have the squad to compete at the top of the table once more. But other sides have caught up to them, and it is up to the United to prove they have the quality and ingenuity to pull away from the pack once more.
- With Alex Hales returning to their side, the two-time champions have signed arguably the most in-form T20 batsman in the world. At the BBL, Hales scored 543 runs at an average of 38.78 and a strike rate of 161.60.
- Two key local players, Hasan and Faheem Ashraf, are in the best form of their careers.
- The United were hit harder by late withdrawals than any other side. Colin Munro's loss at the top means his replacement Paul Stirling has huge boots to fill. Dawid Malan's absence, too, would be keenly felt.
- A thigh injury has kept captain Shadab out for two months, so there could be rustiness when he returns. A number of their core squad members have struggled internationally of late, most notably Hussain Talat, Asif Ali and Iftikhar Ahmed.
Squad: Shadab Khan (capt), Alex Hales, Asif Ali, Fawad Ahmed, Faheem Ashraf, Hussain Talat, Musa Khan, Zafar Gohar, Hassan Ali, Paul Stirling, Lewis Gregory, Phil Salt, Rohail Nazir, Ali Khan, Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Wasim Jr, Ahmed Saifi Abdullah, Akif Javed
Team overview: This was the cheapest PSL franchise on offer when the tournament was announced in 2016, but you couldn't have more value for your money anywhere else in the league. The fact that the franchise takes its name after a city that isn't exactly known for being a cricketing powerhouse in Pakistan hasn't held them back, with the Gladiators having played in three PSL finals so far. Until a blip last year - which the side somewhat contentiously attributed to an unfavourable fixture schedule - they have always gone about their business with clinical efficiency.
This year, the Gladiators might be the most fun side to follow as well. They are the youngest in the competition by some distance, with nine players under the age of 23. To balance that out, they have added the evergreen Chris Gayle and the wily Dale Steyn to their roster, thus boosting experience without compromising on entertainment value. Though this one feels like a somewhat different Gladiators side to the one supporters might be used to, and while some other franchises enjoy a greater reputation for clever T20 cricket, they usually do possess the most all-round, balanced T20 squads.
There is a familiarity to the side not often seen among T20 franchises. Sarfaraz Ahmed has been their captain since its inception, while young players like Mohammad Nawaz, Mohammad Hasnain and Azam Khan have been around for multiple seasons, with the last two expected to enjoy breakout years. With fresh international recruits like Tom Banton and Faf du Plessis added to the mix, the Gladiators look to have retained their identity without allowing stagnation.
- There is a lot of power-hitting ability in the ranks: Banton, Azam, Gayle and Cameron Delport can all strike big.
- All bases are effectively covered. There is an anchor like du Plessis, gun fast bowlers in Naseem Shah and Steyn, quality spinners in Qais Ahmed and Zahid Mahmood, and both seam and spin-bowling allrounders in Ben Cutting and Nawaz.
- The Gladiators are perhaps putting a little too much faith in young players. Naseem Shah and Azam still haven't hit their best, while Banton has struggled in the PSL.
- The loss of Shane Watson and Jason Roy, two of the PSL's biggest hits, might be felt.
Squad: Sarfaraz Ahmed (capt), Anwar Ali, Azam Khan, Ben Cutting, Mohammad Hasnain, Mohammad Nawaz, Naseem Shah, Zahid Mahmood, Chris Gayle, Dale Steyn, Tom Banton, Usman Khan Shinwari, Cameron Delport, Qais Ahmad, Abdul Nasir, Saim Ayub, Arish Ali Khan, Usman Khan, Faf du Plessis
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000