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Batting firepower makes Multan Sultans tough to beat, strong core might do the trick for Islamabad United

Sultans have made some good selection calls, while United will hope to improve their playoff form this season

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Mohammad Rizwan is jubilant after leading Multan Sultans to the PSL 2021 title, Multan Sultans vs Peshawar Zalmi, PSL 2021 final, Abu Dhabi

Multan Sultans made a stirring second-half run to the title in last year's PSL  •  PSL

Multan Sultans

Captain: Mohammad Rizwan
Coach: Andy Flower
Full squad: Mohammad Rizwan (capt), Tim David, Rilee Rossouw, Johnson Charles, Imran Tahir, Sohaib Maqsood, Shan Masood, Khushdil Shah, Shahnawaz Dahani, Rumman Raees, Asif Afridi, Anwar Ali, Dominic Drakes, Imran Khan Snr, Abbas Afridi, Amir Azmat, Blessing Muzarabani, Ihsanullah, David Willey, Rizwan Hussain
Last season: Champions
Two cities, and for Sultans, it was a case of contrasting fortunes. They struggled in the Karachi leg of the tournament - they won just one of five games and were the only side to lose a match while chasing - but the Covid-induced break worked wonders for them. Once the teams reconvened in Abu Dhabi, there was no stopping Rizwan's side, which went on a tear, winning seven of their final eight games to romp to the title.
What's changed for the season?
Sultans have tried to reduce the average age of the squad, with Shahid Afridi and Sohail Tanvir no longer a part of the side. They didn't have Afridi's services for the Abu Dhabi leg last year anyway, and looked the better for it, though Tanvir, over the years a handy option with the ball and always good for a cameo or two, might be missed.
Snapping up Tim David at the first opportunity might prove to be the telling difference, as he adds to an impressive repository of middle-order power-hitting, with Sohaib Maqsood, Khushdil Shah and Rilee Rossouw around too.
There's plenty of continuity for Sultans, who have been pragmatic enough for a side that won the title the previous season. Ten of the 11 who contested the final last year are still with the franchise, though the loss of Usman Qadir means 42-year-old Imran Tahir is their sole elite spin option, which might leave them a bit light in that department.
Player to watch
Something about Shahnawaz Dahani feels too good to be true, and it isn't just his stupendous numbers at last year's PSL. The bowler who hadn't played a single T20 before the start of PSL 2021 finished the tournament as the highest wicket-taker with 20.
He provided key breakthroughs in the middle overs and control in the first six - which, curiously, was the most best time to use him in terms of his economy rate. But it was his innocent natural charisma that lit up what was otherwise an uncertain, unhappy, Covid-hit PSL, his side riding the crest of a wave he played the biggest part in generating.
But while his numbers post-PSL continue to be impressive - he averages 18 per wickets and his economy rate has improved significantly (to 6.90 in nine matches since the PSL compared to 8.42 during it) - it remains a fledging career for the 23-year-old. He played the first PSL with the luxury of anonymity and a smile on his face, but he will play this one under the spotlight, a bowler batters will target.

Key Stat

  • Sultans' firepower might be hard to match this season. Of the players with the highest T20 strike rates since the start of 2021 (minimum 400 runs), three of the top seven - Rossouw (156.67), David (153.38) and Maqsood (148.34) - are part of Sultans' roster. Add to that Rizwan, whose strike rate at the death exceeds 200 since the start of 2020, and this is a side that can overpower and outscore any opposition on their day.
  • Islamabad United

    Captain: Shadab Khan
    Coach: Azhar Mahmood
    Full squad: Shadab Khan (capt), Colin Munro, Hasan Ali, Asif Ali, Marchant de Lange, Faheem Ashraf, Alex Hales, Muhammad Wasim Jnr, Azam Khan, Muhammad Akhlaq, Adam Lyth, Danish Aziz, Zafar Gohar, Paul Stirling, Mubasir Khan, Mohammad Hurriara, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Athar Mahmood, Musa Khan, Zahir Khan
    Last season: No. 1 after group stage, eliminated in second qualifier
    United were shaping up as the runaway favourites in the group stages, storming to the top of the table and staying there right through the competition. They won eight of their group games; no other side managed more than five. However, the wheels came off in the playoffs, where a thumping at Multan Sultans' hands threw them at the mercy of Peshawar Zalmi. Losing a crucial toss, the bowlers found themselves off their game, and another convincing defeat saw arguably the best side of the tournament fail to make the final for the third successive season.
    What's changed for the season?
    Nothing drastic, with the clarity of strategy that runs through each of their campaigns like a thread perhaps the reason for their historical success; no side has a higher win percentage in the PSL. They retain a core group of local players that make up the spine of their side, with several overseas picks from the previous season expected to reprise their roles this year. Trading in Azam Khan for the red-hot Iftikhar Ahmed is perhaps the most eye-catching move, especially given Azam's less-than-stellar T20 form in 2021.
    Elsewhere, Usman Khawaja, so impressive through the UAE leg last year, is unavailable, but Colin Munro, Alex Hales and Paul Stirling all return. Rahmanullah Gurbaz is the sort of dynamic pick United have tended to get right more often than not, while in Muhammad Hurraira and Mubasir Khan, they have exciting emerging picks to choose from. Off the field, Johan Botha has been replaced as head coach by Azhar Mahmood, who was assistant coach last season at eventual title-winners Multan Sultans.
    Player to watch
    Paul Stirling played just two matches for United last season, but he did give them a glimpse of his ability with a sumptuous 33-ball 56 that set up a magnificent chase against Karachi Kings. With the Irishman likely to be available for the whole season this time, his presence at the top of the order gives the franchise extra teeth in the powerplays. His ability to start quickly means he will likely play the role Luke Ronchi did for the franchise for several seasons.
    His high strike rate against spin makes him particularly valuable in a league like the PSL. However, spinners tend to be held back in the competition; only 14.7% of powerplay overs have been bowled by spinners since 2019, compared to 20.1% at the IPL, 20.2% at the BBL, and 46.6% in the CPL. That means Stirling may have to combine belligerence with longevity this season if he is to get enough of a look at the spinners he loves to attack.

    Key Stat

    • While United have the best win-loss ratio of any team in the tournament, every other side has reached at least one PSL final since the last time United contested one - in 2018. United have lost their last three playoff matches, with no side currently experiencing a longer playoff drought.
    • Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000