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Feature

New-look Gladiators hope to put recent slump behind them; Amir's form crucial to Karachi Kings' chances

Babar Azam-led Karachi Kings have dynamic batters in their side but Mohammad Amir's recent form is patchy

Sarfaraz Ahmed rolls out a sweep, Islamabad United vs Quetta Gladiators, Karachi, PSL 2021, March 2, 2021

Sarfaraz Ahmed is the only player to have captained his side in every PSL season  •  PSL

Quetta Gladiators

Captain: Sarfaraz Ahmed
Coach: Moin Khan
Full squad: Sarfaraz Ahmed (capt), Shimron Hetmyer, Will Smeed, James Faulkner, Mohammad Nawaz, Iftikhar Ahmed, Shahid Afridi, Mohammad Hasnain, Naseem Shah, Umar Akmal, Sohail Tanvir, Ben Duckett, Khurram Shahzad, Luke Wood, Abdul Bangalzai, Asher Qureshi, Ali Imran, Ahsan Ali, Dan Lawrence, Ghulam Mudassar
Last season: Finished bottom (eliminated after group stage)
Gladiators appeared to have the firepower to challenge for the title last season, but a combination of poor fortune - they lost each of their first six tosses - and a star cast that underperformed doomed them well before the business end of the tournament. Dale Steyn, in particular, found himself off the pace, and in a number of tight games, the bowlers found the pressure getting to them as they looked to defend totals.
Sarfaraz's mounting frustration, often publicly directed at them, gave off the image of a disjointed, demoralised side, but a number of below-par showings as a team meant the other five franchises pulled away fairly quickly. While the other fellow Karachi strugglers Multan Sultans upped their game in Abu Dhabi, the Gladiators wilted further, with a 110-run thumping at Sultans' hands in their penultimate game perhaps a fitting reflection of how the season had gone for them.
What's changed for the season?
Plenty, and perhaps not enough at quite the same time. Azam Khan has been traded out for Iftikhar Ahmed, who's in the form of his life, and might yet become the Gladiators' X-factor. Umar Akmal returns to the PSL for the first time since he helped the Gladiators to the title in 2019. James Vince and Sohail Tanvir have moved to the franchise from the Sultans, while instead of Steyn, the overseas fast bowler this time is Englishman Luke Wood.
But a side that reached three of the first four finals doesn't quite appear to have made the wholesale changes required to correct their recent slump. Mohammad Hasnain and Naseem Shah are a touch too similar to truly balance out a bowling attack; the cloud hanging over Hasnain concerning his bowling action is concerning enough as it is.
James Faulkner was successful in Abu Dhabi but his medium left arm might not carry the same potence in Pakistan. The absence of Jason Roy and Vince from the start could be an issue, with no obvious opening replacements of a similar calibre. Moin Khan and Sarfaraz Ahmed continue as coach and captain respectively, who have overseen both the rise and then the fall of this franchise. If they can orchestrate another successful season, it might be their most salient achievement yet.
Player to watch
Umar Akmal has at times become the subject of ridicule and outrage within Pakistan cricket, but when it comes to the PSL, few Pakistani batters match his consistency. He remains in the top 15 highest scorers in the competition's history despite not playing the last two seasons; no players with fewer games has more runs than him. His 604 runs have come at a strike rate of 137.91; of the Pakistan batters with more PSL runs, only Asif Ali (164.29) and Sharjeel Khan (144.74) outpace his scoring rate. Suggesting Umar is the same player he was before this lengthy absence, or that he's even as sharp, would be foolhardy, but he nevertheless remains an intriguing cricketer to keep an eye on over the next month.
Key stat
Sarfaraz is the only player to have captained his side in every PSL season. His record since being appointed Quetta Gladiators skipper at the inception of the league reads 32 wins, 29 losses.

Karachi Kings

Captain: Babar Azam
Coach: Peter Moores
Full squad: Babar Azam (capt), Imad Wasim, Lewis Gregory, Mohammad Nabi, Mohammad Amir, Aamer Yamin, Sharjeel Khan, Joe Clarke, Umaid Asif, Ian Cockbain, Rohail Nazir, Mohammad Imran Junior, Mohammad Ilyas, Mohammad Talha, Talha Ahsan, Tom Lammonby, Shahibzada Farhan, Jordan Thompson, Chris Jordan, Faisal Akram, Qasim Akram
Last season: Fourth
Won three out of their first five games, but stumbled midway, losing three successive games. They edged Lahore Qalandars on net run-rate to eventually qualify for the playoffs after beating Quetta Gladiators by 14 runs on the last day of the group stage. However, they were thrashed by Peshawar Zalmi in the Eliminator, where Hazratullah Zazai smashed a 38-ball 77. They had a strong squad last season, headlined by Babar Azam and Sharjeel Khan, but the bowling attack couldn't make much of an impact. Mohammad Amir managed only five wickets in 11 matches while conceding 8.37 runs an over.
What's changed for this season?
They lost Arshad Iqbal and Waqas Maqsood, but Chris Jordan's return will boost the bowling attack that will also include Amir and Aamer Yamin. The major change is Babar taking over captaincy from Imad Wasim. Lewis Gregory will add all-round value to the side while fellow Englishman Ian Cockbain brings strong form from the BBL. Tom Lammonby, another uncapped English player, lends further firepower to the batting line-up. The 21-year-old has a strike rate of 152.02 in T20 cricket and can provide an extra bowling option with his left-arm medium pace.
Player to watch
Amir's PSL form has plummeted after he lost his place in the national side and subsequently announced his international retirement. In the last two PSL seasons, he has picked up only 15 wickets in 22 matches at an average of 45.06 and economy rate of eight. He has been demoted from Platinum category to Diamond this season and the onus is now on him to remedy those numbers and step up.
Key stat
Joe Clarke has scored 1490 runs in 51 T20s since 2020, at a strike rate of 167.04, the second-best among the 83 players with 1000-plus T20 runs during this period. Clarke is coming off a successful stint with Melbourne Stars in the BBL, where he struck four consecutive fifties. Clarke was also part of the first leg of PSL 2021, where he had scores of 46 and 54, both at a strike rate of 200.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000