PSL - a Pakistan success story and a welcome distraction for its people
The last season's finalists, Lahore Qalandars and Multan Sultans, will kick off festivities this year
It begins, then, as it ended. A year on from the day Lahore Qalandars and their Captain Fantastic Shaheen Shah Afridi trounced Multan Sultans, the two sides kick off the festivities again. While that game was played out at the Gaddafi Stadium, which very much felt like a Lahore cauldron, the rematch takes place in Multan's den, where after a playful, light-hearted opening ceremony, the cricket itself will be anything but.
The Pakistan Super League, once a bashful interloper finding its feet on the T20 circuit, now takes pride of place on the T20 circuit this time of year. It is as much a social event in Pakistan as a cricketing one, a rare success story in a country that has otherwise seen troubled years in recent history. As the PSL gears up for the eighth edition, its exuberance and luxuriance will stand in stark contrast to a country that appears to be on economic life support, battling hyperinflation and political instability with no end to either in sight.
But cricket, to press that most tired of cliches into service, brings Pakistan together, and nowhere does it feel truer than in the PSL. For the next month, people will turn to it for entertainment, of course, but also for much-needed distraction. Most Pakistan TV channels are now 24x7 political content streams, but till March 19, they are more likely to report on the activities of Lahore Qalandars than those of the Lahore High Court. If they start talking about a Nawaz Sharif-Imran Khan rivalry, it will be in the context of Quetta Gladiators vs Karachi Kings and Mayfair vs Bani Gala.
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And cricket, despite the many imperfections that still pervade the system, is perhaps the last true meritocracy in Pakistan, another point the PSL has underscored. There are few other institutions where a player like Zaman Khan, a boy who grew up in an internally displaced camp in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, can rise to the top on the basis of ability and talent alone, alongside team-mates whose circumstances were substantially less oppressive. The advent of a women's PSL due to take place later this year only further underscores the force for progression the PSL continues to be.
The recruitment, too, has become more sophisticated. In the early years, drafts tended to focus on big-name foreign superstars. The opening draft picks in the first three years were Chris Gayle, Brendon McCullum and Chris Lynn, respectively - all were unsuccessful. Now, analytics and research have largely triumphed over gut and intuition, with player availability and match-ups often taking precedence over star power.
Despite the significant turnover in squads every year, most sides have managed to retain an identity running through their history. Islamabad United are the trailblazers, even if their Moneyball-style recruitment has now largely been replicated by other teams. Their shock-and-awe batting approach often makes them the most entertaining ticket in town, and with Paul Stirling, Alex Hales, Rahmanullah Gurbaz, Colin Munro, Shadab Khan, Moeen Ali and Azam Khan in the squad, it will be no different this time around.
Qalandars were the lovable buffoons until last year, when they went out and won the whole thing, rewarded for a player development programme that produced Haris Rauf and Zaman Khan. Kings have often been the pantomime villain, but for them, that only makes their wins sweeter. A new, unlikely rivalry with Peshawar Zalmi makes for a mouth-watering Valentine's Day clash, with no love lost between the departing Babar Azam and Kings' captain Imad Wasim, who took a less than subtle dig at him in the build-up.
Gladiators have a rejuvenated Sarfaraz Ahmed, the only man who has captained the same side every season since the league's inception. In Naseem Shah and Mohammad Hasnain, they have the princelings of Pakistan's pace bowling among their ranks. They will want to turn around a few barren years - they went from being the most consistent side in the first four years to the worst side in the previous three.
Sultans were the best side bar none last year, producing the most dominant group-stage season in PSL history. That made their loss to the Qalandars in the final an especially bitter pill to swallow, but no side boasts a better record in the previous three years.
The overseas players are what distinguish any league from a domestic T20 Cup, and while Pakistan continue to attract some of the best, partial unavailability because of players' other commitments will disrupt team plans. Rashid Khan, Gurbaz, Harry Brook, Jason Roy, Alex Hales, Kusal Mendis and David Miller are among over a dozen players to miss chunks of the competition, an inevitability in any league that does not have an exclusive cricketing window. But the quality of the domestic cricketers year after year remains the PSL's enduring asset. Where once it was limited to the bowling department, domestic batters - even those without international pedigree - provide much of the intrigue. Hassan Nawaz, Haseebullah Khan, Abdul Bangalzai, Saim Ayub, Usman Khan and Kamran Ghulam are likely to be pivotal to their teams' plans. Suddenly, power-hitting is almost just as sexy in Pakistan cricket as pace bowling.
And nothing is quite as sexy in Pakistan cricket as the PSL right now. It is Pakistan's treasure as a cricketing nation, and their respite as a people. They need the latter more than ever this time around, and in a country where institutions can often disappoint, the PSL is establishing itself as one that bucks that trend.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000